Have you ever thought about the true meaning of nudity in art? Even more complicated, have you ever thought of nudity in terms of gender representation? If we browse through the internet we'll easily find a wide variety of paintings and sculptures of nude women. The contexts are just as varied, from mythology to fantasy, aand every day life. Who were the muses behind these stunning works? Aristocratic ladies with perfumed petticoats or sometimes prostitutes looking to earn some wages by lying very still in a drafty studio of a penniless artist.
Odalisque (1920) - Adrien Henri Tanoux
Two Women Embracing Each Other (1911) - Egon Schiele
Nude Lying On A Chaise Longue - Gustave Henri Eugene Delhumeau
However, with men, it’s a different story. Okay, I admit, there are loads of sculptures out there capturing the male form but when it comes to paintings women are the subject of choice. Why is that? My guess is that nudity tends to denote intimacy and vulnerability, and men are conveyed under a different light in the art world, at least, in the classical works.
A Dryad (1904) - William Adolphe Bouguereau
Rolla (1878) - Henri Gervex
Sleep (19th Century) - Louis Joseph Raphael Collin
The Naiads (1881) - Gioacchino Pagliei
The Pearl and the Wave (1862) - Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry
Now, women are not wholly vulnerable, everyone can be vulnerable but for some reason it is a common depiction of my gender that has lasted for centuries. Nudity is also used to depict sexual desire and eroticism and this inevitably leads to the over-.sexualization of the body and the battle for power. The fact is the moment we are stripped from our clothes we become unguarded and vulnerable to the gaze of others. I could spend hours talking about the male gaze and the objectification of women in art. Instead, I would like to have a conversation about pleasure, pleasure that doesn't necessarily relate to sexual desire. Pleasure can be power as well and these paintings show its exquisite edge to perfection.
Lilith with a Snake (1886) - John Collier
Laying Feminine Nude (1917-18) - Amedeo Modigliani
Le Sommeil (1866) - Gustave Coubert
The Birth of Venus (1863) - Alexandre Cabanel
Danae and the Shower of Gold (c1908) - Leon Francois Comerre
What's pleasure? More importantly, what's female pleasure? Or to make it more specific, how is female pleasure depicted in art? We understand pleasure as a mental state of happiness, enjoyment, and even euphoria. It’s a response to certain events that make us feel fulfilled and satisfied. That emotion can be translated into so many things, although people generally associate it to sexuality and the passionate sensations we experience.
Danae (1907) - Gustav Klimt
In Bed, The Kiss (1892) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Clyties of the Mist (1912) - Herbert James Draper
Fisherman and the Siren - Knut Ekwall
The Fisherman and the Syren (1856-58) Frederic Leighton
If we agree with the fact that women have often been portrayed as the center of admiration, it's not hard to see why nudity has become the preferred form to depict that. Like any art form, these works are meant to move us by appealing to our most primitive emotions, and this isn't only achieved through the artists' mastery, but through the themes and images they convey.
Japanese Shunga art
Odalisque with Slave (1842) - Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Girl Reclining Nude - Pierre Auguste Renoir
An Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Girls (1783) - Henry Fuseli
Danae (1560-65) - Titian
As you might have noticed, the countenances of our protagonists are intense, conveying those inner passions that drive them. Their movements and features converge in a moment of ecstasy, which the artists manage to capture for eternity. The intensity becomes eternal to be admired and perceived by us. That's perhaps why these moments were commonly depicted in art. They give us an infinite moment of pleasure and satisfaction.
Penitent Magdalene (1594-94) - Caravaggio
Catching Waves - Paul Albert Laurens
But don't think about it too literally, because, as I mentioned, pleasure is a response to basically any event in a person's life. While it can be applied on a sexual level, it can also refer to the fullest enjoyment of life. But who knows? Perhaps behind the mythological or religious motifs of these paintings, the artists really wanted to explore that pinnacle moment of a sexual encounter. Or maybe they're just teaching us another side of our humanity.
Yes, art portrays all the emotions we have inside and fail to express with words. If you want to know more examples of this process, take a look at these: