Art & Decor Trends

The Female Nude in Art

Female Nude - Amedeo Modigliani oil paintingPorn. Porn. Porn. Porn. Do I have your attention, yet? There is a taboo about nudity in human society, particularly in western civilization, and it is often centered on the female body. The nude is the most physical and visible, “naked” aspect of self. The nude is tangible. Throughout art history, onto the female nude western society has projected its fears, hopes, and desires. They say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Consider the fertility symbolism portrayed in ancient statues (The Venus of Willendorf)—a body with no head, but large breasts, belly, and swollen ankles. We, the general public, don’t place as much speculation on the artist’s intention for these ancient works since “artist” was not yet the mysterious profession that it has become. To place value on a subject renders the inanimate to be animate, and the value we place on the evolution of the female nude in art reflects our own evolution as a society. Women are the givers of life, rendered as mothers, lovers, whores, friends, and goddesses. The female nude in art is different subject matter we think, however, based on how she is rendered and who she is rendered by. Yet, it depends gravely upon the perceptions we make, which thereby inform our culture.

Painters on the Female Nude

The living model, the naked body of a woman, is the privileged seat of feeling, but also of questioning… The model must mark you, awaken in you an emotion which you seek in turn to express.” – Henri Matisse

A nude which has little if any affiliation with exhibitionism, which expresses warmth and confidence and an actual story, which has little or nothing to do with contemporary angst or submissiveness or abuse or domination, would best be described as a “who” and not a “which” or “what.” Sad to say that such a wondrous nude is today rarely visible, or even recognized, in the realm of the arts.” – Bernard Poulin

Botticelli and Perfection

Botticelli considered Simonetta Vespucci to be the perfect female representation of Venus, and perhaps the perfect emblem of beauty. Many painters rendered Simonetta’s beauty, yet it’s The Birth of Venus that western society most recalls. Painted in 1485, The Birth of Venus (or, Primavera) depicts the birth of the goddess Venus from the sea. The Graces adorn her with flowers. She isn’t what many would say “too skinny,” but her proportions are considered to be anatomically improbable. Her neck is elongated, and though she stands in a classical contrapposto stance, her body weight is shifted too far onto her left leg for the pose to be realistically held. The female nude is a goddess. These are the facts, but what perceptions are absorbed into culture? If the viewer wants to move from pagan depiction to a monotheistic interpretation, you might think that Venus is Eve right before the fall of humanity into sin. At least this would be a Platonic idea, as Venus had two aspects–the goddess who aroused mortals into physical love and also spiritual love. The contemplation of the physical leads to contemplation of the spiritual.

Munch and Fear

Edvard Munch attributed a vorpal fear and awe to the female, whether she donned clothing or not. Munch “put a lot of himself” into his artwork. Many say that he “hated” women, but his mother died when he was very young and his sister was diagnosed with a mental illness, which ran in the family. Munch often said that insanity and death stalked him.
Edvard Munch Oil Paintings
Woman in Three Stages was completed by Edvard Munch in 1894.

Woman at one and the same time is a saint, a whore, and an unhappy person abandoned.” – Edvard Munch

To be fair, even the men that Munch rendered are not realistic and are troubled.

The Stigma on Modigliani’s Female Nudes

Completed in 1916, The Female Nude is a rare piece in Modigliani nude works. The figure, as his others, is mostly naturalistic, yet nearly all of his works feature his nudes reclining or resting. This piece is situated among his lovers and friends, and not among the nude series that exhibited in what was to be his only solo exhibition. The nudes caused a scandal. One nude was leered at by a crowed of onlookers, and the police chief ordered the nudes to be dismantled and relocated. Amadeo Modigliani didn’t seem to have any unusual qualms with women for his time, and Modigliani remains famous for his nudes, of all things.

What Nude Means for “The Female”

It’s time for the naked truth, which is whatever we perceive it to be. What concerns western civilization and the evolution of the female nude in art history is the infiltration of mispurposed “value.”  Too skinny. Too fat. Too much skin. Porn. Porn. Porn. Porn. Mother. Goddess. Whore.

What about Woman? …and is this question as restrictive? In the evolution of art history into postmodernism, what do we behold and how will that shape our civilization?

About the Author

Tiffany Chaney is a freelance writer, artist and graphic designer residing in North Carolina. In 2012, her first poetry collection Between Blue and Grey was released. Find out more about her at