Female Nude or Naked Female?

Modigliani, Amedeo. 1917. Reclining Nude The Met

Representing female nudes in the history of art is a canonical subject matter along with landscapes, still life, portraiture and historical paintings. When thinking of iconic female nude artworks one might think of timeless masterworks like the Venetian Renaissance master Titian’s Venus of Urbino (c. 1534) or the Florentine High Renaissance Master Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1484-86). However, when comparing these representations of the female nude to works like Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) or Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917), one might notice that they bear striking stylistic contrasts to earlier representations of female nudes. It raises questions such as:

  • Are they all the same type of female nude paintings?
  • And is there a difference between referring to them as naked or nude?

Female Nude Artworks: Mythologizing the Female Body

Since antiquity representing the nude female body has been a central part of the art. However, early representations of the female nude are depicted under the guise of representing a deity.

Women nude. Aphrodite (Venus de Milo)
Alexandros of Antioch-on-the-Meander, Aphrodite (Venus de Milo), from Melos, Greece, ca. 150-125 B.C. Marble, 6’7” high. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

For example, the iconic Hellenistic sculpture located at the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Venus de Milo (c. 150 B.C.) made in marble by the sculptor Alexandros of Antioch is stripped from clothing garments under the justification of representing the deity of beauty and love Aphrodite. It is in this sense that even if the female body is without clothing garments, she is clothed under the veil of mythology.

Historians believe the sculpture was intended to represent the goddess in the midst of her bath and we have accidentally walked into the scene. It is argued that one of the severed arms might have held in the hand an apple, recognized as one of the attributes associated with the deity thus, identifying her as such. The Venus de Milo sculpture is also represented half naked. Although the “wet drapery”, found in other works like the Victory of Samothrace (c. 200-190 B.C.), covers the lower part of her body, it reveals as much as it conceals.

The Art Historian Kenneth Clark in his work The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form comments that the representation of the female nude in art alludes to man’s desire not to imitate, but to perfect. He distinguishes both the naked from the nude by arguing that the naked human body is the departing point from which an artist later perfects it through rationality and turns it into a nude. In this way, the once naked human body is now elevated to the stature of perfection and the divine.

Venus of Urbino. Female nude
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1536-1538. Oil on Canvas, 3’11” x 5’5”. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Guidobaldo II, The Duke of Urbino, commissioned to the Venetian Renaissance master Titian his notorious masterwork, Venus of Urbino. This work bears characteristic attributes that identify the painting as a female nude, such as the idealized porcelain-like texture of the skin and the gaze in the nude woman’s eyes directed to an assumed male spectator.

Clark notes on the Venus of Urbino, “she possesses that candor, that dreamy offering of self, that looking which was not quite looking. Those were the female nude’s most characteristic forms of address.” In other words, the spectator is assumed to be a male and the female nude’s look towards us is not one filled with embarrassment, but rather of seductiveness. Clark argues that in the English language, to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. While the word nude on the other hand carries no uncomfortable undertone.

Unlike Venus de Milo or the Birth of Venus, nothing identifies Venus of Urbino as a “Venus” other than the fact that she is deprived of clothes. However, Titian’s perfecting of the female body does not solely elevate the Venus of Urbino from the stature of the divine but also removes her from time and space making her a timeless symbolism of beauty itself.

Naked Female Artworks: Demythologizing the Female Nude

In the nineteenth century the French Modernist artist Édouard Manet first exhibited his work Olympia (1863) in the Paris Salon of 1865. The unwelcomed reception of Manet’s female nude by the audience and art critics of the time is evident in the sincere treatment of the subject. Manet attacked the establishment of art and the traditional subject matter of the female nude by creating a “Blague”, an art historical joke, of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Through the subversion of a much-admired traditional painting, Manet substituted the goddess, the idealized female nude, for a 19th-century Parisian Courtesan, Victorine-Louise Meurent.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Female Nude
Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Oil on Canvas, 4’ 3” x 6’ 2” in. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Indeed, Manet’s Olympia is best described as “Naked” rather than “Nude” for she is not a nude, an idealized human body deprived of clothing garments. Instead, she is a specific individual, Victorine-Louise Meurent, who has purposefully taken off her clothes, which lie in a heap in the foreground. Although the name Olympia has a classical ring to it, women did not use it in ancient times. Rather it became popular in the nineteenth century when it was the common professional name of prostitutes.

Manet’s subversion of the traditional reclining goddess Venus for a Parisian courtesan, the stripping away of idealizing mythological garments, which present the subject as naked rather than nude, and the naming of the work as Olympia which reveals her identity as a prostitute proves that Manet has not only “demythologized” the traditional female nude subject matter, but the enterprise of prostitution in France during the nineteenth century as a whole.

Manet also subverts two key component or characteristics of the female nude by including a confrontational gaze. Unlike in traditional female nude artworks such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Manet’s Olympia is directly staring back at the spectator, which places us in the role of the customer. Our arrival is announced by the bouquet of the flowers presented to Olympia by the woman next to her. Manet deprives Olympia of the traditional gaze of the female nude which is either inviting or she is not looking at us, therefore allowing us to shamelessly stare at her. The direct confrontational gaze of Olympia removes all obscuring elements of the scene and presents us with the reality of our interaction with Olympia as nothing but a cold business transaction.

Édouard Manet’s Olympia and his sincere treatment of the subject matter through demythologizing the female nude reflected Manet’s strife to present an unadorned, honest representation of subjects found in the modernity of nineteenth-century Paris. In this sense, Manet paved the way for a new tradition to develop, that of demythologizing the female nude which was inherited by subsequent artists such as Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso and many more.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché (1917): Is she Naked or Nude?

Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was an Italian painter and sculptor of Jewish heritage. His work and style can be immediately recognized because of his extraordinary interpretations of the human face, maintaining his individuality through his the typical elongation of shapes. Given his Italian background, Modigliani is characterized for attempting to bridge traditional art with modernism Building upon the art historical tradition of representing reclining female nudes, Amedeo Modigliani produced this painting as a series of naked women for Léopold Zborowski to be displayed in his first and only solo exhibition held at Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris.

Amedeo Modigliani, Female nude Female naked
Amedeo Modigliani, Nu Couché, 1917, Oil on Canvas, 24” x 36” in. Formerly in the Mattioli Collection. Sold at Christie’s Auction House on November 9, 2015. Private Collection.

The crude rendering and un-idealized depiction of Modigliani’s female nudes displayed in one of the windows of the gallery caused a crowd to stand outside of the gallery and eventually had authorities request the immediate closure of the exhibition. Although Modigliani’s reclining nude posture reminds of quintessential masterworks such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the crude impasto paint application, and the unadorned representation of the nude (e.g. underarms and pubic hair) bears striking similarities with works such as Édouard Manet’s Olympia. A true masterwork of Modern Art, Modigliani’s Nu Couché (1917-1918) resembles the strife of modern artists to demythologize the female nude and other art historical traditions with the purpose of providing the spectator with an unadorned, honest representation of the subjects.

Unlike traditional female nude paintings, Modigliani’s Nu Couché does not have the characteristic porcelain-like skin, but rather allows for the artist’s brushstrokes and impasto application of paint to remain visible on the canvas. In this way, Modigliani provides the spectator with a sincere treatment not solely on the subject matter (presenting her as naked rather than nude) but also in the medium he is working on. Thus allowing the spectator to read into the artist’s method of constructing the artwork and of his own awareness of the medium.

Much more concerned with forms, Modigliani’s Nu Couché is devoid of anatomical correctness, for he constructs the female body’s limbs through arabesque contours. However modern the unidealized rendering of Modigliani’s Nu Couché may be, as an artist concerned with bridging tradition and modernism, his work also reminds us of ancient Greek sculpture through the blank gaze of the woman depicted. Prior to Manet’s Olympia, the artist had to attempt representing the full physicality of the female body while abstracting and generalizing her sexuality through its idealization and the aloof gaze of the subject. Therefore, the once abstract and generalized sexuality present in female nude artworks was then particularized in the demythologized rendering of the female body in Olympia.

The representation of hairs on Modigliani’s Nu Couché like Manet’s Olympia also removes her from the timeless symbolic stature of beauty as traditional female nudes. However, contrary to modern unadorned naked representations of the female body, the sexuality of Modigliani’s Nu Couché is abstracted and generalized once again through her blank eyes. Reminiscent of classical sculpture, by making her eyes blank Modigliani deprives the subject of a specific identity. In essence, Modigliani’s Nu Couché becomes abstracted not for one to perceive her as a symbolism of idealized beauty, but rather so that the spectator can appreciate a naked female body for its formal attributes, its curves, and contours.

Like his contemporaries, Picasso or Braque during the 20th century, Modigliani’s abstraction of a demythologized female nude reflects his interest in formalism. The spectator is to enjoy the artwork not as an allegorical representation of the female body, or the specific identity of a subject, as is the case of Manet’s Olympia. Instead, we are to enjoy Modigliani’s Nu Couché for the shapes, contours, arabesque limbs and other formal attributes that make a demythologized and unadorned honest rendering of the naked female body aesthetically pleasing and pleasurable observe.

Modigliani Skateboard Polyptych - Female Nude
Musart on Decks, Amedeo Modigliani Skateboard Polyptych (set of 5), Nu Couché (Reclining Nude) (1917-1918), Limited Edition of 100. 100% Canadian/American Maple wood.

Modigliani’s Nu Couché was sold at Christie’s auction house on November 9, 2015, for $170.4 million to Chinese Billionaire investor and art collector Liu Yiqian for the Long Museum in Shanghai, co-founded by Mr. Yiqian and Mr. Wang Wei. At Musart Boutique we strive to bring art to accessible prices while perpetuating the legacy of artists, traditions and masterworks in the history of art.

We are proud to include in our Musart Boutique original collection Musart on Decks this exclusive limited edition of 100 Amedeo Modigliani Skateboard Polyptych (set of 5) displaying his masterwork Nu Couché (1917-1918). Bringing together tradition and contemporary culture, our exclusive original collection Musart on Decks features limited edition skateboard decks, displaying art historical timeless masterpieces which bridge the traditional history of art and contemporary skateboarding culture. Whether you prefer nude or naked, traditional, modern or contemporary works of art, our comprehensive collections of home décor items are sure to bring some of the world’s most iconic masterworks to decorate your home.

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