A revealing look at the history of nudes in Western art

An M.F. Husain Cubist figural nude oil painting achieved $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

An M.F. Husain Cubist figural nude oil painting achieved $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021. Image courtesy of Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — The nude in the canon of Western art has a complicated and interesting history. Paleolithic fertility sculptures embodied the essence of physicality and ancient Greek sculptures highlighted the virility and power of the male figure. Moving up to the Renaissance era, nude paintings of women were typically inspired by antiquity but often took on allegorical or symbolic meanings. Cultural traditions and philosophies are just some of the factors affecting how nude figures in art were viewed and depicted.

In the last 100 years or so, the nude as subject matter has become commonplace, particularly in the works of the Modernists. Botero’s paintings of Rubenesque women in the nude are well known. Tom Wesselman, Milton Avery and Roy Lichtenstein also embrace the nude genre in their own distinctive styles.

While the nude is not exclusive to Western art, it was less acceptable in parts of the world where religious and cultural beliefs frowned on such depictions. “The nude has been a central motif in Western art since the Renaissance, when artists looked to classical sculptures as inspiration for idealized human forms,” said William Schweller, the fine art specialist at Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, New York. “For reasons of propriety, nude figures, primarily female though also male, were included in depictions of mythological narratives or religious scenes. Iconic examples of this include Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino,” he said. Most of the great Old Masters have been off the market for many years, ensconced in museum collections. For this reason, the highest-grossing nude artworks offered at auction today are mostly from the 19th century and onward.

Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Nude With Blue Hair’ sold for $620,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Nude With Blue Hair’ sold for $620,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Very late in his career, Roy Lichtenstein turned to nudes as subject matter. Rather than just paint a few such works, he did a series of nine screenprints in 1994, including Nude with Yellow Pillow, Nude Reading, and Nude With Blue Hair. An example of the latter sold for $620,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Rago Arts and Auction Center in May 2021. Incorporating his famous “Ben Day” dots, Lichtenstein drew these images working from depictions of females in comic books rather than using live models. He reimagined the figures as comic-strip heroines, nude and sexually provocative.

This 18th- or 19th-century European School painting of a male nude realized $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

This 18th- or 19th-century European School painting of a male nude realized $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Courtesy Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

The majority of nude sitters in art are women, making the male nude rare and thus highly desirable as subject matter. Auctioneers and sellers will often list such works for sale with the words “male nude” in the title or the lot description to draw potential bidders who have targeted online searches for such works. A fine example of a painting of a male nude is an 18th- or 19th-century European school oil painting that realized $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Clarke Auction Gallery.

Few female artists have painted nudes, but chief among them was French painter Suzanne Valadon, whose 1929 canvas ‘Nu assis sur le bord d’un lit’ realized $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

French painter Suzanne Valadon’s 1929 canvas ‘Nu assis sur le bord d’un lit’ realized $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers.

Most paintings of nude women were created by men and usually objectified women. Harder to find are paintings of nude women done by female artists. A 1929 oil painting by Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865-1938) titled Nu assis sur le bord d’un lit (Nude seated on the edge of a bed) brought $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Hindman. In direct contrast to the classic “male gaze” nudes painted by men, Valadon gave viewers self-assured contemporary women, unabashed in their nudity and often gazing directly at the viewer. Far from offering idealized portrayals, the artist scandalized some viewers by picturing women’s bodies with pubic hair and plump curves.

The nude figure has played a significant role in Modern and contemporary art. “In the last 30 years with the rise of the third wave of feminism and a rejection by many of patriarchal values, there has been a revolution where women can picture their bodies independently of the ‘male gaze,’ and male artists are much more aware of the power dynamic between artist and model,” said Richard Klein, exhibitions director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. “Additionally, the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ culture has opened the door for a more complex and nuanced portrayal of the human figure that isn’t as simply polarized as ‘male/female’.”

A circa-1989 lithograph of Tom Wesselmann’s ‘Monica with Tulips’ earned $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019. Image courtesy of Le Shoppe Too and LiveAuctioneers.

A circa-1989 lithograph of Tom Wesselmann’s ‘Monica with Tulips’ earned $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019. Image courtesy of Le Shoppe Too and LiveAuctioneers.

Unlike many of his pop art contemporaries, Tom Wesselmann focused more of his work on female nudes. His best-known series, Great American Nude, comprised 100 vividly colored works, mostly showing reclining faceless women with bright red nipples against backgrounds featuring stars and stripes. He had several regular sitters, including his wife, Claire, and his assistant, Monica Serra, a former model whom the artist met in the 1980s. A lithograph of Monica with Tulips earned $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019 at Le Shoppe Too.

Klein states that despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, the nude is not a phenomenon of Western art, even though it is prolific in Western oil painting. “The nude figure appears most notably in Indian and African art, but because it’s often highly stylized or even abstracted, and, sadly, because of cultural prejudice, it hasn’t been considered equal with the Western art canon,” he said. Abstracted nudes appear frequently among Indian artworks. A Cubist nude oil painting by M.F. Husain (Indian, 1915-2011) realized $11,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Greenwich Auction. The renowned artist was well known for his striking and bold paintings but sparked controversy and pushback after painting Hindu deities as nudes.

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Itzik Benshalom (1945-2018) bronze nude sculpture. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers and Hill Auction Gallery

Whether romanticized or abstracted, lyrical or stark, the motif of the nude in Western art is here to stay. Seductive as they may seem on the surface, nudes are often rife with undercurrents of meaning. They can also challenge the viewer to consider the societal expectations of the women who are pictured. These artworks deliberately provoke a reaction, and as the viewer is judging the artwork, the viewer is also being judged.