Since the Renaissance, the nude has remained an essential focus of Western art. Whether embracing or refashioning classical ideals, artists from the seventeenth century to the present have privileged the nude form and made it an endlessly compelling means of creative expression.
In Baroque art, the continuing fascination with classical antiquity pressed artists to renew their approach to the nude and the antique tradition. Thus Hendrick Goltzius’ remarkable view of the Farnese Hercules from behind and below (17.37.59) alters the muscular texture of a revered ancient statue, while Andrea Sacchi’s portrait of Marcantonio Pasqualini (1981.317), a highly esteemed singer of his day, inflates the status of the sitter by including two nudes representing the mythic musicians Apollo and Marsyas. Other nudes help to heighten the drama of narrative works, such as Guercino’s painting of Samson captured (1984.459.2), in which the decision to represent the hero as the lone nude, muscular but powerless in the midst of armed adversaries, highlights his present weakness as well as his former strength. The female nude took on fresh meaning in the art of Rubens, who with evident delight painted women of generous figure and radiant flesh (37.162). The Baroque taste for allegories based on classical metaphors also favored undraped figures, which were used to personify concepts such as the Graces and Truth.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as esteem for classical culture ran high, so too did the prestige of the nude. The academies of the period directed young artists to develop their skills by drawing the naked form of ancient sculpture as well as live models, and many successful artists continued such exercises long after their student days (1985.112.1; 1972.118.226a,b). Nudes are ubiquitous in the ambitious history paintings of the period as well as sculpture and decorative schemes. Proponents of the Neoclassical style made nudes closely based on ancient examples, like Canova’s Perseus (67.110.1), which repeats the pose and body type of the widely admired Apollo Belvedere. Artists associated with the Romantic movement assumed a freer attitude to the nude and to antique subject matter more generally. Camille Corot, for instance, included mythological tales in some of his landscapes; an early example (1975.1.162) represents the woodland spring where the goddess Diana among bathing nymphs prepares to punish Actaeon for catching sight of her naked. So as not to offend nineteenth-century morals, artists tended to depict naked figures within contexts removed from the everyday, such as mythology or the imagined Orient, and yet the careful constraints imposed on the nude somehow heighten its eroticism, as in Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (94.24.1).
When academic ideals faced challenges in the later nineteenth century, the delicate status of the nude was quickly exposed and subverted. Édouard Manet shocked the public of his time by painting nude women in contemporary situations in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (1863 and 1865; both Musée d’Orsay, Paris), and Gustave Courbet earned bitter criticism for portraying in Woman with a Parrot (29.100.57) a naked prostitute without vestige of goddess or nymph. In sculpture, artists sought new proportions and narrative coherence for the male nude as well as the female. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux pointed to the dramatic contrast between powerful physique and desperate situation in his group of nudes representing Ugolino with his sons (67.250), and Auguste Rodin challenged classical canons of idealization in his expressively distorted Adam (11.173.1).
Although the classical tradition lost its cultural supremacy in the twentieth century, the appeal of the nude remains strong in modern and contemporary art. The rejection of academic manners in pursuit of a new form of truth reduced the appeal of Venus but promoted the unadorned nudes of private life. The innocent bathers of Renoir‘s late career (1975.1.199), Degas’ artless-looking scenes of women washing and dressing (29.100.41), and Balthus’ straightforward girl looking in the mirror (1975.1.155) are formally unlike the idealized nudes of earlier art, yet in their undisguised humanity they are kin to the nudes of antiquity.