Ah, the female nude 一 one of art history’s most pervasive themes. While this ancient trope can certainly be problematic given the gender and power dynamics at play, the iconic paintings I will dissect here also illuminate fascinating ideas about metaphor, womanhood, and divine beauty. I will attempt to trace these evolving notions and attitudes across the ages.
Starting with one of the earliest and most famous depictions of the female form 一 The Venus of Willendorf, this Paleolithic idol is likely a representation of a primitive mother goddess. Given the patterned cap that obscures her facial features, scholars agree that she wasn’t meant to depict one woman but broadly symbolize fertility and abundance. Standing at only 4 ½ inches tall, this portable good luck totem was used by brides looking to start a family. Observing this piece with our modern eyes, it is so refreshing to not only see a healthy, realistic depiction of curves but also their connection to a woman’s wealth and status.
While The Venus of Willendorf predates the Roman goddess of love, art historians typically use the moniker as a blanket term for the female nude as a protective title that makes it acceptable subject matter. What are you talking about? It’s not improper. I’m just considering the abstract ideal of beauty. This veil of metaphor in association with the goddess is also palpable in Titian’s 1538 masterpiece, The Venus of Urbino.
We know that she is a Venus because of one very subtle clue - a myrtle bush in the background. This shrub is typically associated with the goddess. Commissioned by the Duke of Urbino as a wedding gift to his bride, the painting is a celebration of the erotic dimension in marriage. The dog curled up by her feet is a symbol of fidelity. Yes, her figure is soft, fleshy, and idealized here, but she also makes direct eye contact with the viewer, establishing a personal connection.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino also offers us the birth of the reclining nude, a staple in Western art, one that would reappear hundreds of years later in another celebrated and controversial painting, Manet’s Olympia. This 1863 scene strips away the lush, painterly techniques and veil of mythology found in Titian. This woman is not supposed to be a Venus, but a real woman and a likely prostitute as the name was a common one for sex workers at the time. Her features are realistic and almost corpse-like. There is no coyness in her gaze, in fact, downright confrontational. Her assertive expression draws the viewer into the painting, placing them in the shoes of one of her clients, therefore automatically implying guilt, as if to say, we all know why you’re here.
Let me know what you think of these paintings, this lineage and what they reveal about desire, the male gaze, and women’s empowerment. Thank you so much!