There is a pyschological reason to this. We understand it loosely as “body language”. Body language is more than communication. It is wordless universal communication, which is able to describe the most abstract of feelings.
Since the aim of most art is in communication, it is understandable to see how nudes on canvas are so fascinating.
Earliest known nude art is the celebrated Venus of Willendorf, a tiny stone sculpture found in Austria. She is from the Stone Age (ca. 38000 – 10000 BC) . Surprising to the archaeologists, sculptures of the nude female figure, morbidly fleshy, with no defined facial features or limbs, in the rest of the world in that era were quite similar.
The earliest, most celebrated, nude art known today are from Greece and Rome in the period of Antiquity (900BC – 300AD). The realism of these works were quite impressive, and typifies the “Greek God” sculptured look.
The late Antiquity to Pre-Renaissance Paintings
The late Antiquity to Pre-Renaissance (300 – 1450) paintings were dominated by scriptural Christian paintings. This era was also classified as the Middle Ages and included Gothic art, Trecento and Romanesque paintings. Human figures were mostly stylized and symbolic rather than expressive. Nudes (if at all) were depicted as part of a narrative, rather than expression of emotion.
The Renaissance period Nude Paintings
The Renaissance period (1500s) was the rebirth of attention to the realistic human figure. It was this time that Artist’s signed their names onto their works and re-focused on the skill of executing artwork to impress, rather than indoctrinate.
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Renaissance painters express the nude as beautiful, flowing curves and soft white skin sometimes dressed with light, transparent clothes.
Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519) was a keen observer of the human figure. He had numerous drawings and studies of the human figure.
Michaelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) was the most illustrious artist of his time. He is regarded foremost as a sculptor. His nudes were beautiful, muscular, god-like. They were almost touchable and much more than realistic. His grandest paintings are nudes on the frescos on the Sistine Chapel.
Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-12): the Fall of Man, 1510 (Post Restoration), Michelangelo Buonarotti
The figures of Raphael (1483 – 1520) were more soft-focused and smooth toned. Less musculature, but still strong body language.
Titian (ca 1488 – 1576) painted nudes of different genres, from altar pieces to mythology. His paintings are dynamic, and there is a lot of motion of figures in his works.
Other notable Renaissance nude paintings:
The Baroque Era Nude Paintings
The Baroque era (1600s) was arguably the true Golden Age of art. Nudes on paint are dynamically lighted like in a modern screen-play. The paintings are dramatic, 3-dimensional and naturalistic. Genres also change to more contemporary subjects, even though some of the story-telling in the paintings are based on Christian scriptures or Mythology.
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18th Century Famous Nude Paintings
18th Century nudes were the product of socio-political climate of its time. The art (mostly) got less flamboyant and more stately, and majestic. A good number of nude paintings were borne out of this era.
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The 19th Century Nude Paintings
The 19th Century nudes developed to less “in-the-flesh” and more stylistic. The artists of this era were varied and more experimental in their style. Painting styles were experimented with, and there were movements or -isms that were borne from this time . In broader terms, their artists were Realists, Romantics, Impressionists and Expressionists and many other sub-categories which we recognize today.
The Realists were about style. Their subject matter were focused on contemporary, real life ordinary subjects. They reject the idealism in painting ideas used in Christianity or mythology as sole subjects for art.
Gustav Courbet’s nudes were provocative. His paintings were, in general, raw, and focused on reality.
Le Sommeil, 1866, Gustave Courbet
Of the famous Impressionist nude painters are Edouard Manet. His subjects were like that of Goya, almost journalistic. His nudes, however was loose strokes, almost flat tones with creative use of color and shape.
More typically impressionistic paintings include the paintings of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Cezanne. The figures are less detailed, with focus on the shape and blocks of colour.Posing For Degas;A Photo Shoot Inspired By French Impressionist Artist Edgar Degas
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This is an impressionist nude painting in pointilism.
The Expressionists were more varied in the style. The nudes were much poignant in the message of the paintings. The focus is on communicating than purely aesthetics. Of the famous artists of this genre are Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustav Klimt, Egon Shiele, and Henri Matisse.
Resting Nude, Egon Schiele
20th Century Famous Nude Paintings
The 20th Century began with tumultuous years of the two world wars. Great art derived from this era were interesting and expressive. Abstraction is born, and often the subject of “nude” is no longer a recognizable shape. Progeny from the 18th Century adopted styles of Impressionism, Expressionism still live on with adopted contemporary subjects and flair. This is the era of photography and cinema. Realistic representation seems no longer a priority, and neither is there any more journalistic role for art as in Goya’s time.
John Collier is an late 19th century artist and quite a celebrated portrait painter in England.
Woman Pulling up Her Stocking, 1894 Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s interesting rendering of nude in his art.
Rene Magritte is not so famous for his nude painting, and this one is so beautiful, yet relatively unknown.
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Hopper is another artist not so well known for nudes, and this is gorgeous and sensual.
The art world today is more interesting than ever. With social media on the internet, more artists are inspired experiment with styles and techniques of painting. The form of the human nude figure is interpreted and re-interpreted. In any form, paintings of the nude human figure always fascinates.
With this era, comes the age of Contemporary art. What the nudes of today are all about… well, that’s the job of the historians of the future.