Pretexts for nudity in art
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Before the 1850s and the birth of modern art, artists needed an alibi to depict nudity and sexuality in their paintings or engravings. Classical mythology and Christian martyrology provided an excuse and justification to display these themes. Frequent motifs were depictions of the Christian The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the entire Greco-Roman Venus (mythology) and the The Three Graces.
Due to censorship, artists past and present, have to resort to pretexts for displaying the naked human form. With painters of the past, the depiction of historical, mythological, and religious subjects often provided such pretexts for nudity in art, as in the temptation of saint Anthony (Félicien Rops and Hieronymus Bosch, more recently, Salvador Dalí), the massacre of the innocents, the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs), Leda and the Swan, the three graces, and Venus, who has become a byword for the female nude, tout court.
Over time, secular excuses for showing the undraped human form complemented and, later, supplanted these historical, mythological, and religious pretexts, athleticism being one such excuse, as in Edouard Manet’s Olympia. In the traditional arts, nudity has long since become accepted, but the same is not yet true with regard to more recent artistic media, such as film.
Leda and the Swan
The motif of Leda and the Swan from Greek mythology, in which the Greek god Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan, was rarely seen in Gothic art, but resurfaced as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones, in Italian painting and sculpture of the 16th Century.
Judgement of Paris
The Judgement of Paris is a story from Greek mythology, which was one of the events that led up to the Trojan War and (in slightly later versions of the story) to the foundation of Rome. The mytheme of the Judgement of Paris naturally offered artists the opportunity to portray three ideally lovely women, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, in undress, as a sort of beauty contest. An engraving by Raimondi of the subject, after a design by Raphael, was used as the basis for Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.
The Three Graces
- "Who it was who first represented the Graces naked, whether in sculpture or in painting, I could not discover. During the earlier period, certainly, sculptors and painters alike represented them draped. [...] But later artists, I do not know the reason, have changed the way of portraying them. Certainly to-day sculptors and painters represent Graces naked."
The Loves of the Gods
The Loves of the Gods (Italian: Gli Amori Degli Dei) are a subheading of a number of stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses. These stories of Greek gods and goddesses include Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaethon, Callisto, Apollo and Coronis (The Raven and the Crow), Mercury and Battus, Mercury and Aglauros, and Jupiter and Europa.
Venus became a popular subject of painting and sculpture during the Renaissance period in Europe. As a "classical" figure for whom nudity was her natural state, it was socially acceptable to depict her unclothed. As the goddess of sexual healing, a degree of erotic beauty in her presentation was justified, which had an obvious appeal to many artists and their patrons. Over time, "venus" came to refer to any artistic depiction of a nude woman, even when there was no indication that the subject was the goddess.
The abduction of Persephone
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Some of the stories of the demons and temptations that Anthony is reported to have faced are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity and pretext for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Emphasis on these stories, however, did not really begin until the Middle Ages, when the psychology of the individual became a greater interest.
Bathsheba at Her Bath
Bathsheba at Her Bath is an oil painting of Bathsheba by Rembrandt from 1654. The model was Rembrandt's partner Hendrickje Stoffels. She is known to have died young and the shadow on her left breast has led some to speculate that her death was from breast cancer.
Maria lactans (also: Galaktotrophousa, Mlekokapitelniza, breastfeeding Madonna) denotes the graphic depiction of the breastfeeding Maria. The Virgin is depicted breastfeeding the Holy Infant. One of the earliest depictions (if not the earliest depiction) of Mary, is Our Lady nursing, as painted in the Priscilla Catacombs ca. A.D. 250
Susanna and the elders
Susanna and the Elders is a biblical story. As the story of Susanna goes, a fair Hebrew wife is falsely accused by lecherous voyeurs. As she bathes in her garden, having sent her attendants away, two lusty elders secretly spy upon the lovely Susanna. The story was frequently painted from about 1500, not least because of the possibilities it offered for a prominent nude female. Some treatments emphasize the drama, others concentrate on the nude; a 19th century version by Francesco Hayez (National Gallery, London) has no elders visible at all.
Potiphar's wife is the title of several paintings.
- Joseph and Potiphar's Wife, by Guido Reni 1631
- Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1655.
And one by Tintoretto.
Lot and his daughters
While Lot and his two daughters are living in a mountain cave after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, the girls believe that the rest of humanity has been exterminated, so they conspire to get Lot drunk so that he will impregnate them, as they believed they were the only 3 people alive, and thus, that they could not otherwise have children. The plan succeeds, and both daughters became pregnant with sons. The first was named Moab (Hebrew, lit., "from the father" [meh-Av]). He was the patriarch of the nation known as Moab. The second was named Ammon or Ben-Ammi (Hebrew, lit., "from our nation"). He became the patriarch of the nation of Ammon. The resulting unusual complicated family relationships are explored in a riddle in the Exeter Book, which says that of Moab and Ben-Ammi, each is the other's uncle and nephew.
A number of art works on this theme, including:
- The Repentant Mary Magdalene by Canova
- Penitent Magdalene (Caravaggio), c. 1597 painting by Caravaggio
- Penitent Magdalene (de la Tour), c. 1638 painting by Georges de la Tour (also called The Magdalene with Two Flames)
- Penitent Magdalene (Titian)
In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, many famous European artists depicted the scene. Hundreds or possibly thousands of paintings were created, which tell the story. Most outstandingly, Peter Paul Rubens had several versions. Baroque artist Caravaggio also featured the deed (among others) in his work from 1606, The Seven Works of Mercy. Neoclassical depictions tended to be more subdued.
The abduction of the Sabine Women
The rape and subsquent suicide of Lucretia has been an enduring subject for visual artists, including Titian, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, Jörg Breu the Elder, Johannes Moreelse, and others. Lucas Cranach the Elder painted five versions of her death.