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Found across many disciplines and genres, fine art nudes have been depicted throughout the history of mankind. Whether for pure viewing pleasure or for scientific purposes, the depictions of the human body have been created as an irreplaceable part of many cultures, usually celebrating universal themes such as love, life, male and female beauty, sex, emotions, energy, prosperity.

Taken by a dose of narcissism, but also by the feelings of worship and admiration, humans have been visually representing their own bodies at practically every point of our existence. Pointing out the physical as well as the metaphorical meanings, fine art nudes evoke a complexity of emotions and personalities as individuals and as species, mirroring the many layers of our being. The tale of nudity in fine art, predominantly in the visual genres that are painting, sculpture, prints and photography, can be traced back for centuries, for instance to the times when the Venus figurines were made as an homage to fertility - typically female, these pieces exaggerated body parts such as hips and chest, and were most likely used as symbols or in rituals. Don't miss our latest article about the truly meaning of the Fine Art inside the History of Art...

On the other hand, perhaps the most famous examples of the fine art nude to date, the Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were devoted to the portrayal of the unclothed figure, one that idolizes a god or a hero and emphasizes their glory through a naturalistic yet stylized vision of their exterior. These nudes, both male and female, were based on actual mathematical ratios and organic proportions, giving out a sense of “perfection” in every sense of the word. Today, we can talk about the “heroic nudity” in order to describe such intentions, as a concept in classical sculpture which brings the portraits of humans to those of a (semi-)divine being.

 

Michelangelo’s David

 

While the Greco-Roman classical art mostly focused on athletes of the Olympics and the mythology, the fine art nudes of the later periods, namely the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, were heavily influenced by religious themes, thus providing a different look at nudity - one that tries to hide it in shame, to put it plainly. It wasn’t until the works of David by masters like Donatello and Michelangelo in the 15th and 16th century that the classical nude was back; although these were portraits of a Biblical figure, the old understanding of the idealized nude body was there yet again.

In the period that followed, it could be said that painting took over as the protagonist of the fine art nude. The most notable artworks, some of which still stir controversy for their content, meaning or even hidden messages, belong to Titian and Botticelli, both of whom depicted Venus, the goddess who had served as inspiration to many artists before that as well, Francisco de Goya, with his Nude Maja, 1798, and Édouard Manet whose Olympia from 1863 is among world’s most memorable paintings. The reclining female nude, often placed indoors or a landscape, was now almost completely dominant in comparison to the male nude, which was also the case with fine art drawing in both studies and finished works.

The timeline of the fine art nudes of Modern and Contemporary art, or those of the 19th, 20th and 21st century to be precise, is an exciting one. Using the old artworks as inspiration while characterizing their works with the freshness of the times they lived in, and even that of the future, artists created a splendid variety of works whose themes, techniques and concepts kept overlapping with others. We have Amedeo Modigliani’s reclining female nudes, one of which now stands among the most expensive paintings ever sold in auction; Egon Schiele’s portraits and self-portraits, still as raw and emotion- and erotically-charged as they were one century ago; Pablo Picasso’s numerous paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics inspired by his many muses; and the nudes of Lucien Freud, one of the most prominent portrait artists, to name a few.

 

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude (Le Grand Nu), ca. 1919. Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1950

 

Of course, it wasn’t just male artists who are to be mentioned for their representations of the (mostly female) fine art nudes, although they do dominate the roster. Contemporary women artists such as Jenny Saville, Alice Neel, Marlene Dumas, Lisa Yuskavage, and Cecily Brown, are all praised for their contribution to the field; many of their artworks also use a bold feminist approach, meant to redefine the visual characteristics of the female nude which often only focus on objectification of women.

In modern and contemporary fine art nude sculpture, we also witnessed the development of a number of revolutions. Following Auguste Rodin’s modernistic views of traditional figurative sculptural work, Gaston Lachaise’s realistic female nudes and Henri Moore’s semi-abstract monumental bronze reclining nudes, among others we saw the rise of artists with different ideas of what a fine art nude is - Fernando Botero, for example, broke away from the “ideal” form and portrayed people figures in voluptuous, excessive forms. 

Another large field of the fine art nude is the one captured by the masters of photography. These images often recall the classical and the Renaissance arts through their composition and contrast, and put the emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the human body. The first examples of the fine art nude photography can be found not long after the medium was invented in the 19th century - while many painters (among them Delacroix and Degas) used the camera to capture photos on which they would later base their paintings or drawings, many actual photographers devoted their oeuvres to the nude.

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Among the first commercial examples of the fine art nude photography are the works of Alfred Stieglitz, who often portrayed his wife Georgia O’Keeffe naked, followed by the iconic Modernist shots by Imogen Cunningham, Man Ray, and Edward Weston, to name a few. The genre evolved further with the arrival of Post-war photographers such as Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, but also Francesca Woodman, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe; their nude photos beautifully flirt with other photography genres as well, including portraiture and fashion. Discover more about The Wonders of Fine Art Photography!

 

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919. Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

Because they are dealing with the naked, or almost naked, human body, the fine art nudes have often been subjects to controversy. Among the questions that they raise, especially in the contemporary moment, are those of the body image, specifically the issue of the “ideal body” as presented and endorsed in them, as well as the depiction of children and young adults in more explicit manners. Nevertheless, the nude in fine art is still one of the most sought-after among aficionados and collectors, and is bound to draw the most fans in many more years to come.

 

Stay Tuned to Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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