Notion of nudity in European Renaissance painting.

Aishi Chakraborty
3 min readJun 30, 2021

From a feminist perspective.

Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation by Hans Memling (taken from -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthly_Vanity_and_Divine_Salvation_(Memling))

While the tradition of painting became more secular , and artists explored the various themes of paintings lead to the tradition of nude art. Nude form of art was popular in European countries , but is in sharp contrast to the non European art traditions. In Indian art , African art , Pre Columbian art we find themes of sexual attraction. “ women active as men”.

It is seldom found in post Renaissance paintings that women are being gazed at by men. John Berger writes in Chapter 3 of his book Way of seeing -

“post Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal- either literally or metaphorically because the sexual protagonist is the spectator looking at it. The absurdity of male flattery reached its peak in public academic art of the nineteenth century”.

This form of art is seen in the painting by Bouguereau , Les Oreades”.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereauby Les_Oréades( taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Or%C3%A9ades)

Berger mentions in his book , it is difficult to create a static image of nakedness. The concept of “ nakedness” does vary from people to people.

“ Nakedness is a process rather than a state”.

Throughout European nude art we find spectators in the paintings are male , gazing at the naked bodies of subservient women. Objectification of women is often seen throughout in the paintings of European painters.

Berger writes“ they do to themselves what men do to them.” which sheds a light on class structure being embedded in the consciousness of women.

“ They survey, like men, their own femininity.”

Venus and Cupid by Peter Lely ( taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lely_venus-cupid.jpg )

Above , picture is a painting of Charles the second commissioned from Peter Lely in secret. It is a object of great controversy in the literary and art circles because though the painting appears to be of Venus and Cupid but is found to be a portrait of one of the King’s mistresses Nell Gwynne.“ it shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked” writes Berger.

The painting was treated as a symbol of subjugation of the former mistress of the king , which was a reason of envy among the people in the kings court. This shows the false sense of pride men derive by treating women like objects as form of mere amusements. This theme of objectifying women in paintings are widely found in nude art tradition in the European countries. This painting briefly depicts how women throughout history has been objectified . Though , In modern art “ nude has become less important” . Various European oil paints that embodied the European Humanist spirit yet treated women as “ a thing or abstraction”.

To conclude , According to me I believe that misogynic attitudes have seeped in gender biasness throughout history society art and time. It existed before the period of great Italian Renaissance painters and still continues to pave its way throughout till the modern 21st century.

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