The Evolution of the Nude in Art: Changing Roles and Representations

Categories: Art

The nude has actually changed significantly throughout time in terms of its function in the art world. It has been used to represent an individual's power and their weak point, the method they see themselves and the method others see them. Most of nude artworks are of the female naked, as highlighted by John Berger, 'guys take a look at ladies, women recall at themselves being taken a look at.' Vanessa Beecroft, a contemporary artist deems to challenge the way society views the nude in both high art and everyday contemporary society.

She challenges the way females are evaluated on their look a base idea that is seen throughout numerous pervious images of the nude in art. In 1599 Pieter Pauwel Rubens illustrates just that, the judgment of a females based upon looks - in his painting, The Judgment of Paris, which portrays Venus the goddess of appeal and love being judged as the most gorgeous female by the judge - Paris.

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In contrast to these female nudes, during the renaissance, Michelangelo's nudes consisted of generally males. He utilized the naked to reveal both desire and strength along with his devotion to religious beliefs and art. The naked in art can been seen changing as society does throughout time. In the modern society we reside in today, we, the audience, are most likely to accept the nude as part of everyday life since of the method mass media has affected us as a society.

Nevertheless, prior to times when the nude was typical sight and open sexual desire was seen as something preposterous, artists utilized the naked as a method of depicting their personal aesthetic perfects though spiritual figures, showing their love for both the art itself and their nude subjects.

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Michelangelo was very first and foremost a carver. One of his most popular nude sculptures was that of David-- illustrated in the minutes before he beat Goliath. Created in 1504, Michelangelo shaped for 4 years to develop, in his own eyes, the finest sculpture of David possible.

Michelangelo's own devotion to the piece highlights his love for the subject along with the art form. David was illustrated as athletic but natural with some fetchers such as his hand and head bigger for focus. David's naked type symbolised his high religious status to Michelangelo.

He felt that perfection such as David’s should not be hidden, this can be seen throughout a range of Michelangelo’s works, both sculpted and painted where he depicts religious figures of high value as nudes and covers lower class subjects with the cloth of a slave as if to cover their shame. Therefore, it can be seen that Michelangelo mirrors his own ideals in the form of religious figures to depict the perfection he desires as well as display this to the audience for them to subconsciously judge the subjects of his work under their own ideals. During the Baroque era, Rubens depicts the scene of the judgment of Paris, this painting allows the male subject to openly judge the female on their beauty alone.

While depicting this mythological tale Rubens also himself paints the Venus to meet his ideal expectations of a woman’s desirable qualities, both physically and temperamental and offers her to the audience’s judgment also. Rubens has posed the women to show off their bodies in the most desirable way as well as highlight their key fetchers’ such as their nipples and lips in deep red and gold against their pure skin, he paints the woman with small breasts and wide hips – the ideal representation of female beauty at the time.

Implied innocence hides the male voyeurism in this scene – all figures are equally naked however, only the female body is on show, all male’s in the image are either turning away from the audience or are modestly hidden by lavish draping’s, furthermore, the woman are surrounded by small winged children named, Putti; these figures are associated with love and sexual encounters.

The ultimate goal for all the women in this painting is to win the love of Paris through their beauty and Venus’ ideal attraction symbolises the high value placed on this virtue and highlights their love and physical beauty as the most important quality they have to offer. Contemporary artist, Vanessa Beecroft challenges the way the nude has been viewed throughout past art as well as how it is perceived in modern society. Beecroft is most known for her confronting live performances in which a selection of like women are stood on high heels and not much else, facing the audience’s gaze.

Beecroft aims to provoke reaction from the audience, both male and female, the gaze these models hold as well as their physical closeness to the audience highlight the fact that these women know they are being looked at and judged and consequently look back and judge the audience creating an uncomfortable but eye opening experience for both the models and the viewer. Beecroft challenges the way the nude body is perceived by both high art and by the public and questions a woman’s need to conform to societies expectations as well as focusing on how the concept of beauty can change over a period of time, Beecroft states, ‘maybe if they (the audience) see it twenty times they’ll start not to think of it in the same way, I’m not sure, it’s an experiment.

In conclusion it can been seen that the nude has changed dramatically throughout time however, it has always been associated by different forms of beauty and judgment, due to the human nature of the artists that create such works. It can also be highlighted that the way the audience as well as the artist sees the nudes they depict can change during the artwork or during their lifetime depending on how they are influenced by the changing world around them.

Updated: Apr 29, 2023
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The Evolution of the Nude in Art: Changing Roles and Representations. (2017, Jun 01). Retrieved from

The Evolution of the Nude in Art: Changing Roles and Representations essay
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