Research exercise: The female nude

This is a subject that I had realised I had already started to be interested in through due to a chance discovery of a female painter of Aleah Chapin (more about her later) and on looking through the National Gallery paintings I had also discovered Velasquesz and the Rokeby Venus which I had earmarked for special study (I just absolutely love this painting!).

The course notes require research on various nudes from both the classical period and including modern performance artist Marina Abramovich and Sam Taylor-Wood so I will start with the latter two:

I don’t understand Sam Taylor-Wood’s video on David Beckham at this point in my studies and am not really sure what she was trying to portray but Marina’s work strangely makes more sense as she tries to explore senses and pushing boundaries in her art.  Marina makes a modern day viewer question ourselves and leaves no place to hide. I did find an article on The Telegraph newspapers website on the Beckham video and it explains how Sam Taylor-Wood is paying homage to a 6 hour epic called Sleep which was filmed by Andy Warhol in the 1960’s.  The article goes on to also explain how Ms Taylor Wood doesn’t see Beckham as a sportsman but as good looking man and by portraying him sleeping it is invoking a sense of intimacy as if you could touch him (this emphasised by filming so close and concentrating on his upper torso and head) and being so close also speaks of erotic intimacy – when it is explained like that I can understand but I still do prefer Marina’s work.  There is a you-tube video of her sleeping naked with a skeleton – a comparison of life and death which is stark and unforgiving.

I then jumped back in time to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) who was a French post-Impressionist painter and historically not fully appreciated until after his death.  The nude that really struck me was a study painted in 1880 – he captures not only the tones and colours of the woman’s skin and her voluptuous figure but he also paints the textures and variations in surfaces around the woman.  It is a delicate and sensitive study of a nude woman quietly stitching or repairing a garment or linen – the woman is deep in thought and concentration.

I looked at Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres with a view to looking at female subjects but interestingly there is a Study of a Male Nude that is very much painted in the style of a Greek classical statue or painting.  Before I had even noticed that Ingres’s style was that of Neo-Classical it was immediately apparent – in Greek art male nudes signified moral protection and standing nudes were an expression of virility.  This painting is very reminiscent of a Greek god in the stance of the model and even the classical curly hair. In many of Ingres’s female nudes they too are of a classical nature with curvaceous figures.  Interestingly I found a painting called The Grande Odalisque which is  very similar to Velasquesz’s Rokeby Venus in the way the woman is reclining with draped fabrics around her although in Ingres’s painting the woman is looking back towards the artists and the fabrics are much richer in colour and texture and that applies to the painting of the woman herself too.  Velasquesz’s painting is softer in tones and colours with the model looking at herself in a mirror held by a winged cherub.  Diego Velasquesz  (1599 – 1660) was a Spanish painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Phillip IV and is thought by many to be the greatest European painter who ever lived.  The Rokeby Venus is painted with the characteristic sensuous painting technique that Velasquesz is known for – this painting is the only known surviving female nude and was thought to have been displayed privately in order to protect it from the Spanish Inquisition in a strictly Catholic country and is believed to be from around 1651.

Looking at Titian’s Venus of Urbino almost feels intrusive because it gives a sense of looking at a photograph of a young newly married woman but this painting was done as a gift to a young wife to remind her of her marital duties and so is purposely painted to be very erotic.  It was painted in 1538 and the young model is just wearing a simple head dress, a bracelet and a ring and there are symbols of fidelity and motherhood in the picture too – the woman in the background looking down at another young woman is richly dressed.  The figure of the model is soft and curvaceous without being voluptuous and this adds to the erotic or sensuous nature of the painting.

Again in further contrast Manet’s nudes are much simpler done – he lived 1832 to 1883 and his periods were Realism, Impressionism and Modern Art and these show in the way he has drawn his female models. In the painting titled Olympia the model is nude except for again a hair decoration, bracelet and necklace of some nature and with her maid (I presume here) holding a large bouquet of flowers – her maid is simply dressed in white dress and cap which almost emphasises now the fact that it was the height of the slave trade.  Manet was a painter who was not afraid to shock or cause a stir amongst Parisian society and this he managed to do with this painting.  I do like the very direct stare of the model and I notice now the fact that the model has low heeled shoes on which add an air of sensuality to the picture along with the way she hides her modesty with her hand and arm.

Now to go back to the artist I mention at the beginning – Aleah Chapin who is an American born in 1986 and already the recipient of several awards. Aleah has been interested in the female form since her student days and has caused some controversy with her highly realistic paintings and larger than life paintings of what she terms ‘real female bodies’.  I came across her by chance in a newspaper article and her work spans all ages of the female body from young women to older ladies.  The painting that strikes the most is a collection of nude women of all sizes and shapes effectively playing or messing around together.  Unlike the classics of the Gauguin, Velasquesz, Titian, Manet etc there are no softly done skin tones with smooth skin and no wrinkles but she paints to show the what I describe as ‘mottledness’ of natural skin with all the wrinkles or sagging of the figure as women age along with grey hair and scars including those of mastectomies – Aleah pulls no punches.  Her models are set in natural settings as if outdoors in a  field so her models come across as relaxed and as I state playful.  The nudes of the past tended to show young women but Aleah is not afraid to show age in all its beauty and not all critics have liked her work because of that.

Before I finished looking at this subject I typed into my search engine ‘female painters of male nudes’ and led to an artist called Isabelle Bonzom who was born in France in 1964. Isabelle has been studying and working on painting flesh or skin since 1985 and has done a series of paintings on the male nude – she has tried to show the preciousness of life and its precarious nature but more than this for me she disassociates the male nude as an object of sexuality but as a vulnerable, fragile and tender human being whilst still having a sense of male virility and sensuality.   Her paintings are realistic in their lines, tones of the skin and colours and vary dependant on her use of media i.e. crayons and paper, watercolour or oil and canvas.  Isabelle is very much in contrast to Sam Taylor-Wood’s portrayal of David Beckham asleep and to Ingress’s classical painting of the male nude but it also reflects a modern era and challenges the sexualisation of male bodies.  Isabelle doesn’t seem to paint her models faces preferring to concentrate on their bodies and this means you see the vulnerability reflected in how her models are positioned without almost the distraction of their expressions – as human beings we are drawn to faces naturally and this makes us look differently at her work.

Tutor notes:  “Think about the way in which art creates social constructions of gender or the necessity of challenging the notion that there can be a common experience of images across gender divisions.  What does it mean to look from a woman’s point of view? (See Berger’s Ways of Seeing, in which the author argues that male nudes just show men at their best, but the female nude is always a fantasy, a production, of male desire)”.  As I correct my early assignments and type this I am nearing the end of the course and I am getting a much fuller understanding the female nude in art throughout the centuries and in particularly my reading of Artemisia Gentileschi is helping me to fully understand that the way women have been portrayed in art is the way we have been portrayed in life and this more often than note as sensual or sexual creatures which are there for desiring and fantasizing.  Male nudes on the other hand are often depicted in idealised terms whether in sculpture or in paintings – the figures are athletic or muscular or in depictions of power rather than objects of desire.  I agree with Berger’s argument on the whole and hence admire the work of Artemisia and in particular her self-portrait whereby she depicts herself not as a sexual object but as a woman of power.


Chapin, A.  (date unknown).   Aleah Chapin [online].  [Date Accessed:  January 2015].  Available from:

Cohen, C. 22 October 2014.  ‘What painting portraits of naked women has taught me’ 22 October 2014 (online).  [Date Accessed: January 2015].   Available from:

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