Figures with no clothes are peculiarly common in the art of the Western world. This situation might seem perfectly natural when one considers how frequent the state of undress is in every human life, from birth to the bath to the boudoir. In art, however, naked figures relate very little to these humble conditions and instead reflect a very complex set of formal ideals, philosophical concerns, and cultural traditions. Though meaningful throughout the sweep of Western art, the nude was a particular focus of artistic innovation in the Renaissance and later academic traditions of the seventeenth century and after.
The nude first became significant in the art of ancient Greece, where athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the human body, particularly the male, in an unparalleled way. The athletes in these contests competed in the nude, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity. It was thus perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence, values which seem immanent in the magnificent nudes of Greek sculpture (25.78.56). Images of naked athletes stood as offerings in sanctuaries, while athletic-looking nudes portrayed the gods and heroes of Greek religion. The celebration of the body among the Greeks contrasts remarkably with the attitudes prevalent in other parts of the ancient world, where undress was typically associated with disgrace and defeat. The best-known example of this more common view is the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where the first man and woman discover that they are naked and consequently suffer shame and punishment.
The ancestry of the female nude is distinct from the male. Where the latter originates in the perfect human athlete, the former embodies the divinity of procreation. Naked female figures are shown in very early prehistoric art, and in historical times, similar images represent such fertility deities as the Near Eastern Ishtar. The Greek goddess Aphrodite belongs to this family, and she too was imagined as life-giving, proud, and seductive. For many centuries, the Greeks preferred to see her clothed, unlike her Near Eastern counterparts, but in the mid-fourth century B.C., the sculptor Praxiteles made a naked Aphrodite, called the Knidian, which established a new tradition for the female nude. Lacking the bulbous and exaggerated forms of Near Eastern fertility figures, the Knidian Aphrodite, like Greek male athletic statues, had idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios. In addition, her pose, with head turned to the side and one hand covering the body, seemed to present the goddess surprised in her bath and thus fleshed the nude with narrative and erotic possibilities. The position of the goddess’ hands may be meant to show modesty or a desire to shield the viewer from too full a view of her godhead. Although the Knidian statue is not preserved, its impact survives in the numerous replicas and variants of it commissioned in the Hellenistic (12.173) and Roman (52.11.5) eras. Such images of Venus (the Latin name of Aphrodite) adorned houses, bath buildings, and tombs as well as temples and outdoor sanctuaries.
Since the nudes of ancient Greece and Rome became normative in later Western art, it is worth pausing to consider what they are and are not. They express profound admiration for the body as the shape of humanity, yet they do not celebrate human variety; they may have sex appeal, yet they are never totally prurient in intent. The nudes of Greco-Roman art are conceptually perfected ideal persons, each one a vision of health, youth, geometric clarity, and organic equilibrium. Kenneth Clark considered idealization the hallmark of true nudes, as opposed to more descriptive and less artful figures that he considered merely naked. His emphasis on idealization points up an essential issue: seductive and appealing as nudes in art may be, they are meant to stir the mind as well as the passions.