The history of ‘Nudes’ and the evolution of ‘Nudity’ explained

We’ve all sent a cheeky nude at one point in our lives, but as it turns out, nudes and nudity have never been that simple. So what is a nude?

The naked form is as much part of our culture, as it is part of our biology. Nudity and nudes are not just found in seedy restricted-sections and NSFW Twitter pages, but a celebrated facet of human history.

However, in this daunting new age of OnlyFans and HBO subscriptions, it’s important to look back and understand how art, science and history have shaped the way we interpret not just our own bodies, but also each others.

Adam and Eve nude
Lucas Cranach (1526).
Image: The Courtald.co.uk

But first, where do we draw the line between artful nudity and bare-back pornography? The historical definition of a ‘nude’ centres upon a figure, in many cases from Western culture, that acts as a tool to show the ideals of feminine and masculine beauty.

Famous art historian, Kenneth Clarke, made the distinction that a nude is an idealised body comfortable being unclothed, while a standard naked body looks deprived of clothing and ‘exposed’.

Essentially, context is key. Nudity must embody an awareness of nakedness, and extract beauty from that awareness. Nakedness is the mirror opposite. If you’re confused, think of Adam and Eve. The infamous couple who doomed humanity were comfortable in their nudity, until Eve at the damn apple (allegedly peer-pressuring Adam in the process), and the two became uncomfortable with the knowledge of their own nakedness.

But before Adam and Eve, and even most likely before Eden, nudity was already a critically important concept in early human culture.

Fertility and ancient humanity:

Male and female nudity (if you believe in gender) has held different roles throughout history — one of those major roles centres upon fertility.

The first female nude that modern humans are aware of is also the first recorded sculpture in human history, throwing back to 28,000–25,000 BCE. You may know her already; she’s called the Venus of Willendorf. Known for her curvy figure and wide hips, this small statue is thought to be a deity for female fertility.

Female nudity also held an important place in prehistoric cultures across the globe, with Egyptian and Near-Eastern civilisations commonly featuring depictions of naked women – often as deities who ruled over love, war, or the underworld.

Venus of Willendorf
Image: Sketchfab

Creating naked depictions of ‘perfect’ femininity to symbolise the deities of important concepts was also done by the ancient Greeks, who sculpted nudes of their fertility goddesses, including Aphrodite, in an idealised form.

Aphrodite Statue
Image: Ancient Art – Tumblr

But, while women got their fair share of nude depictions in ancient Greece, nothing could compare to the men. A notoriously ‘liberal’ culture regarding their attitudes towards sexual fluidity, male nudity was simply seen as an extension of the Greek lifestyle.

Men disrobed at symposia (old-timey hedonistic parties) and socialised in the buff, or competed in athletic events in the bare.

Athletes, in particular, held a high place in Greek society, being compared to that of Gods, so it’s no wonder that nudity translated into ideals of glory and victory.

It’s also no wonder that life imitated art, inspiring the dawn of male nudity in sculpture as a way to represent triumph and strength. Discobolus (450 BCE) may be the most famous example of this admiration for the male physique.

Discobolus Image: On Art and Aesthetics

Erotic nudity also existed within both the Greek and Roman empires. Ancient Greeks were known for painting sexual scenes on their ceramics to be exclusively used at Symposia, while many other erotic ceramics were famous for being some of the earliest depictions of homosexual sex.

Ancient Romans would also paint erotic frescos of heterosexual (and homosexual) sex on the walls of brothels and baths, as could be seen with preserved frescos in the ruined city of Pompeii.

Fresco Porn
Image: Medium

Renaissance Nudes:

But, what happened next? Following the rise of Christianity (and the destruction of multiple ancient cultures along the way), nudity came back in the form of the Renaissance, which blended Greek and Roman cultures into a hegemony between art, and technique.

However, this process wasn’t quick. Nudity did disappear from most Western art during the rise of Christianity, except for biblical depictions of Adam and Eve, or a bare-breasted Madonna with a naked baby Jesus.

Madonna and Child
Image: Art and the Bible

Furthermore, depictions of female nudity during the renaissance period still ring true to depictions today, as female nudity was created for seductive purposes if it didn’t focus on biblical theology. The ‘male gaze’, as it were.

As women were practically forbidden to practice art (too much free thought), men were at the forefront of the Renaissance movement. Female nudity was created for men, by men – and seduction had replaced perfection.

Some examples of this shift include Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting, The Birth of Venus (1486), and the Venus of Urbino (1534) by Tiziano Vecelli, known best today as Titian, who painted his depiction of Venus in a palace bedroom to provide a sense of ‘intimacy’.

Titian Venus Painting
Image: Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias
The Birth of Venus
Image: Calvin Powers

While eroticism in art was a cultural practice already extending thousands of years across the globe, the Renaissance movement marked the beginning of the end for nudity to be synonymous with perfection.

Female nudity began to overshadow male nudity, which slowly faded into the background of relevance and appreciation.

Instead, male nudity was used as a way to explore human anatomy and medical science. The ‘definitely-not-gay’ Michelangelo’s most famous works, including David (1504), and the Vitruvian Man (1490), are some of the best examples of male nudity meeting the middle point between art and science.

Statue of David
Image: City Wonders
Vitruvian Man
Image: Wikipedia

19th Century:

Fast forward to the 19th century, and the nude had now become a unique facet of art – unbound by its previous. overly-symbolic connections to ancient history and mythology.

French impressionist paintings such Gustave Courbet’s La Femme au perroquet (Woman with a parrot) (1866), and Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1863), leant into art’s depictions of female nudity as seductive and pornographic, rather than perfect.

Woman with a parrot
Woman with a parrot by Gustave Courbet. Image: metmuseum.org

Furthermore, both Courbet’s and Manet’s works were considered shocking and surreal for the time, as the depictions of nudity were considered completely unrealistic, or openly told tales of degeneracy. What sort of woman gets their gear off at lunch? Well, most likely a sex-worker. An uncommon focus in art at the time.

However, for younger generations across Europe during the 19th century, this pushback against academic standards marked the beginning of nudity being seen as a tool for expression rather than an object of perception.

While nude paintings could previously be found tucked away in gardens, baths and houses, they were now being brought out into the open. Demanding to be seen as proper art, instead of ‘soft-core pornography’. Bless those 19th Century nudes!

Luncheon on the grass image
Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet.
Image: musee-orsay.fr

While the French were pushing the boundaries of art by depicting nudity for nudity’s sake, they weren’t the first to do so. Shunga, erotic Japanese art, also depicted nudity, and even sex, long before French impressionism.

Dating back as early as the 1300s, and reaching its peak in relevance during the 15th to 19th centuries, Shunga could only be found in personal scrolls, books, prints and small woodblocks.

Shunga is best known for its accurate or exaggerated depictions of genitals, bodies, and physical intimacy.

Unlike depictions of Western nudity at the time, Shunga was detached from symbolic meaning, and instead revelled in ideas of clumsiness, physical attraction and comedy. In fact, another term for Shunga is ‘Warai-e’, which roughly translates to ‘laughter-picture.’

Shunga Image 1
Image: NGA’s collection Search
Shunga Image 2
Image: Timeout.com

While nudity that had no symbolic meaning was officially banned in Japan in 1772, this did not stop the production and purchase of Shunga – eventually culminating in the traditional Japanese art fusing with Western depictions of nudity.

The work of artists such as Hashiguchi Goyō shows this movement within Japan, as nudity began to be seen as an art form deemed acceptable for public viewing.

hashiguchi goyo
Woman at her bath by Hashiguchi Goyo.
Image: artscope.com.au

Fast-forward to today, and nudity has taken on a completely different meaning. Firstly, our relationship with nudity has completely changed with the rise of media as a facet of art and culture.

The rapid rise of OnlyFans and Twitter porn shows that nudity and sex work are no longer grand statements or shameful concepts. However, in an age of desensitisation and spectacle, new forms of ‘nudity’ are emerging.

The tendency to sexualise female nudity while ignoring male nudity, while still present, is starting to dissolve amid new movements towards intersectionality and body positivity.

Artists such as Jenny Saville have pioneered new forms of nudity as artistic expression, namely through the use of realism tinged with body horror, to shift away from the female form as one of seduction or perfection.

Jenny Saville
Image: Frieze

Similarly, feminist art has worked to recontextualise our relationship with the male gaze. The 1999 performance piece from Vanessa Beecroft for the Kaldor Public Art Project, Project 12, saw Beecroft advise 20 models to stand in a position for two and a half hours. The women were dressed in red Waldorf tights, matching Prada heels, and advised to “hold position; look plain, boyish, quit.”

Project 12
Image: Google Arts and Culture

“The practice is to stand, not talking, and to wait until it ends, being watched as a picture and photographed as though on a photoshoot,” Beecroft previously said about the work, which recontextualises the male gaze and interrogates the observer to consider the commodification of the corporeal.

However, nudity has also taken some much more left-field directions, particularly within queer art and digital accessibility. The photoshopped image you see below of James Pradier’s The Three Graces, for example, has become famous within trans and gender diverse circles for its re-contextualisation of trans bodies.

As YouTuber, Contrapoints noted, seeing oneself within classical art meant to embody perfection, is an empowering experience.

Trans Statues
Image: Reddit

“A lot of people have a deep longing for the sense of dignity and grandeur conferred by classical art. That’s why trans women love that picture someone photoshopped of ‘The Three Graces, but with dicks’,” she said.

“I’ll admit that silly picture actually had an emotional effect on me, because here in ‘the West’, it’s actually hard to think of your body type as beautiful until you’ve seen it sculpted in white marble.”

So, despite the ancient history of nudity, one thing has remained constant. The nude body is as much a political landscape, as it is an aesthetic one. Furthermore, the meaning of ‘nudity’ has changed continuously throughout history depending on cultural boundaries or expectations.

Only in the past 100 years have women and queer people become involved in interpretations of nudity, as art and media are removed from the gate-keeping grips of cis-white-men.

However, subverting and changing this cultural male gaze requires a radical approach – look at the groundbreaking works of Saville, or Kim Kardashian.