Archetypes of the Female Nude in art history

In a previous post I talked about Kenneth Clark’s book, “The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form”. As the title implies, one of the key themes of that book is that the nude as an art form is predominantly a quest for the idealised human form.  It transpires that this idealised form is best presented through a limited range of poses which balance sensuousness and modesty. Stray too far from those poses and one strays either into poses which are unattractive, or veering to the pornographic.

I have set out below a number of examples through history of some of the key poses of the female nude. This can never, of course, be an exhaustive list and does not attempt to be. But it is remarkable how many paintings, sculptures and photographs you will see whose forms are derived from some of these presented here.

The Aphrodite of Menophantos, dating from 1C BC is one of many variants of a sculptural pose called the Venus Pudica (modest Venus). It derives from a sculpture by Praxiteles but has been adjusted in two key ways. Firstly, Venus is adopting an aware and self-conscious pose and, secondly, the position of her arms has been adjusted to protect her modesty. That intrinsic modesty has made this one of the most enduring forms of female nude.
The Aphrodite of Menophantos, dating from 1C BC is one of many variants of a sculptural pose called the Venus Pudica (modest Venus). It derives from a sculpture by Praxiteles but has been adjusted in two key ways. Firstly, Venus is adopting an aware and self-conscious pose and, secondly, the position of her arms has been adjusted to protect her modesty. That intrinsic modesty has made this one of the most enduring forms of female nude.
The Birth of Venus (c.1468) by Sandro Botticelli. This painting from the early Renaissance clearly draws on the classical form of a Venus Pudica but differs in key respects. Whilst classical nudes were highly naturalistic, Botticelli is inspired by classical forms but remains highly influenced by medieval/gothic forms. His Venus essentially floats on the canvas in a pose that whilst highly attractive is so unbalanced that it would be physically impossible.
The Birth of Venus (c.1468) by Sandro Botticelli. This painting from the early Renaissance clearly draws on the classical form of a Venus Pudica but differs in key respects. Whilst classical nudes were highly naturalistic, Botticelli is inspired by classical forms but remains highly influenced by medieval/gothic forms. His Venus essentially floats on the canvas in a pose that whilst highly attractive is so unbalanced that it would be physically impossible.
The Sleeping Venus (c.1510) by Giorgione. To quote Kenneth Clark "The Venus of Giorgioni is sleeping, without a thought for her nakedness ... but her outline forbids us to identify her as a Venus Naturalis. Compared to Titian's Venus of Urbino, who seems, at first, to closely resemble her, she is like a bud, wrapped in her sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose". This is perhaps the last celestial Venus.
The Sleeping Venus (c.1510) by Giorgione. To quote Kenneth Clark “The Venus of Giorgioni is sleeping, without a thought for her nakedness … but her outline forbids us to identify her as a Venus Naturalis. Compared to Titian’s Venus of Urbino, who seems, at first, to closely resemble her, she is like a bud, wrapped in her sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose”. This is perhaps the last celestial Venus.
Lady at Her Toilet (1515( by Giovanni Bellini. This female nude represents the opening salvo in a period of Venetian domination of the form. Her ample form and roundness were to become typical of Venetian art.
Lady at Her Toilet (1515) by Giovanni Bellini. Giorgione, Bellini and Titian between them established a period of Venetian domination of the female nude art form. Her ample form and roundness were to become typical of Venetian art.
Jupiter and Antiope (c.1525) by Correggio. Whilst the Venetians may have dominated the painting of the female nude, Correggio was their equal and perhaps in some way they better, able to create highly sensuous images which mage all the while to remain highly feminine.
Jupiter and Antiope (c.1525) by Correggio. Whilst the Venetians may have dominated the painting of the female nude, Correggio was their equal and perhaps in some way they better, able to create highly sensuous images which mage all the while to remain highly feminine.
The Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titan. Less than 30 years separate this painting from the similar one by Giorgioni. But what a change. Venus has worked up. She is self-aware, looking directly at the viewer. We have entered the world of the knowing Venus Naturalis.
The Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titan. Less than 30 years separate this painting from the similar one by Giorgioni. But what a change. Venus has worked up. She is self-aware, looking directly at the viewer. We have entered the world of the knowing Venus Naturalis.
Three Graces (1639) by Peter Paul Rubens. This pose dates back to the classical period but Ruben perhaps delivers the ultimate version of the picture. To quote Clark again "the older hair and swelling bosoms of his Graces are hymns of thanksgiving for abundance, and they are placed before us with the same unself-conscious piety as the sheaves of corn ... that decorate a village church at harvest festival".His nudes are innocent even when entirely conscious of their charms.
Three Graces (1639) by Peter Paul Rubens. This pose dates back to the classical period but Ruben perhaps delivers the ultimate version of the picture. To quote Clark again “the older hair and swelling bosoms of his Graces are hymns of thanksgiving for abundance, and they are placed before us with the same unself-conscious piety as the sheaves of corn … that decorate a village church at harvest festival”.His nudes are innocent even when entirely conscious of their charms.
The Toilet of Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velazquez, often referred to as the Rokesby Venus from the English house at which it was long on display. This is an extraordinary picture for two reasons., Firstly it was the only female nude Velazquez painted at a time when the prescriptions of the Catholic Church in spain made such a painting highly controversial. Secondly, it essentially events a brand new style of female nude, which has of course been replicated many times since.
The Toilet of Venus (1647-51) by Diego Velazquez, often referred to as the Rokesby Venus from the English house at which it was long on display. This is an extraordinary picture for two reasons., Firstly it was the only female nude Velazquez painted at a time when the prescriptions of the Catholic Church in spain made such a painting highly controversial. Secondly, by reversing the reclining Venus, it essentially events a brand new style of female nude, which has of course been replicated many times since.
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