While I am imagining the thrill of visiting a museum again, I decided to investigate my museum-induced sense that there is a theme in paintings of female nudes. I love nudes, partly because they provide clues about the ways society has viewed women over time. Anyway, during my museum days, I noticed that some paintings of nudes reminded me of other paintings of nudes, no matter when or where they were painted — in particular, paintings of “reclining nudes.”
It turns out that a single painting inspired 500 years of artistry.
Here is the painting:
Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” is the oldest known full-sized nude in western painting. Created during the High Renaissance, it portrays the Roman goddess of love in a scene that expresses harmony with nature, and an idealization of female beauty. It is peaceful, transcendent, exquisitely constructed.
The paintings that “Sleeping Venus” inspired probably number in the thousands. I have picked a few here that seem representative. All of the artists except one are European. All except two are men. All of the paintings deploy styles and techniques of their time. Each tells us a little about how women have been perceived in “western” culture since the 16th century.
Before I continue, I should say I did a lot of online searches that included words like “nude” and I fully expect to pay the price.
Titian’s masterpiece, “Venus of Urbino,” was painted shortly after Giorgione died of the plague and it is surely a tribute to “Sleeping Venus.” Titian was a colleague of Giogione and finished “Sleeping Venus” after Giorgione’s death. Unlike Giorgione’s ethereal Venus, Titian’s Venus engages us. She is still lofty, but also apparently restrained by domesticity and whatever comes with it.
Moving through the modern period, reclining nudes are more likely to acknowledge the sometimes harsh reality of womanhood. Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the few women artists of the Baroque period and she was the only woman to have been admitted to the Academy in Florence. Her “Danae” retains the period’s use of allegory but her princess is in trouble. Gentileschi’s Danae is in part idealized, but we connect with her because of her obvious emotional state, which is highlighted by the artist’s use of contrast and vibrant colors. Danae has been locked in her room by her father to keep her from becoming impregnated after an oracle predicted Danae’s son would kill him. Danae knows she is about to raped by Zeus, who has entered her locked room as a golden shower. Oh dear.
During the neo-classical period, Francois Boucher (a man and one of the 18th century’s most popular artists) presents a different perspective on Danae’s impending rape. Boucher’s Danae knows what is coming but lies emotionally complacent and poised in what appears to be a pastoral natural setting. Boucher uses soft colors, flowing lines, and a limited color palette to create a feeling of tranquility, which makes us (unintentionally?) complicit in the crime that is unfolding.
Eugene Delacroix’s “Odalisque” was painted during the romantic period and channels the era’s fascination with Asian design and subjects, called “orientalism.” An “odalisque” is a member of a sultan’s harem, also a popular subject in 19th century art. Delacroix’s use of shadows and fluid brush strokes create a sense of intimacy and mystery. Neither goddess nor princess, Delacroix’s subject is openly sexual, as if she were a party to her own enslavement. I can’t find any evidence that this painting caused a stir in the art circles, probably because its subject is not intended to portray a European woman. I probably don’t have to explain my views on all of this.
In “Study of Olympia,” Edouard Manet ushered in the Impressionist period by failing to follow the rules assigned to polite company. The work is a portrait of modern Paris that scandalized modern Paris because it didn’t romanticize its subject’s nudity. Instead, Manet deployed technique and a cold stare to suggest his subject was a prostitute. And, unlike Delacroix’s odalisque, Olympia is obviously European. The artist’s inclusion of a black woman has been interpreted to be a reference to “primitive” sexuality, consistent with the racism of the French colonial period. Manet never apologized.
Mary Cassatt was one of three celebrated women artists during the Impressionist period. She was American, educated, and an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. Cassatt’s “Reclining Nude” presents subject matter that is unlike most of Cassatt’s works, which portray women in more chaste settings, often with children. Typical of Cassatt’s paintings, the artist seems to love her subject, who lies relaxed and trusting in a balanced frame. Even though Cassatt is acknowledged as one of the world’s most important Impressionist artists, a search for information about this painting turned up nothing. Nothing is always something.
German Expressionism has so many wonderful works, and some of the best are by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, the period’s tormented bad boy. “Reclining Nude with Fan” is so typical of his style — an explosion of color, an appeal to the emotions, and just enough reality to trigger, and maybe also influence, your imagination. The model is Milly Sleeping, a black woman who, probably intentionally, appears practically race-neutral in the spirit of the times. Hitler eventually denounced Kirchner and his cohort as “degenerates.”
Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” takes eroticism to the next level, omitting any allegorical references or stylistic distractions, and getting right to the point with a classic come-hither gaze. Members of the Paris art cognoscenti were scandalized. Some modern critics, on the other hand, find Modigliani’s nudes too tame, one referring to their “sense of audacity without genuine filth.” For me, a Modigliani fan, everything about this painting is just boring. Whatever the rest of us think, somebody likes it a lot. It recently sold at auction for $170 million.
Matisse painted a lot of reclining nudes, including odalisques, but “Blue Nude” in particular shocked the French public in a way that Matisse’s paintings of enslaved women did not. Apparently, the painting did not adequately permit the viewer to identify whether the subject was white or “other,” which was crucial to French colonizers at the time. The painting was burned in effigy by colonialists, and inspired related works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.
Picasso has been accused of being misogynist and maybe he was if this painting is any indication. “Reclining Nude” is a portrait of his lover, whom he met on the street when she was 17 and he was way older. The painting suggests a sensuous, raw sexuality but not much that identifies its subject as a person with feelings or intellect. Or one who is loved. Picasso’s works are undeniably incredible but he certainly had his issues….
Sax Berlin is a contemporary artist from England whose work is exceptionally varied. No surprise, perhaps, that he painted a series of reclining nudes. “In Another Light” portrays a Modigliani-esque woman who is unmoved by your intrusion. Neither goddess nor sex object, she is a bit androgynous, relaxed, unashamed. Nice going, Sax Berlin.