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5 Nudes that Scandalized the Art World

Until the era of the French Revolution, the presentation of nude figures in European art were only permitted in religious or mythological paintings. Even then, it was discouraged. The nineteenth century was a time of questioning these conventions when many modern artists began playing with the symbolism of the nude.

In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the development of Nude artwork through modern European history (post middle ages onward). Well take you through examples of the nude pre- and post-French Revolution and discuss the ways this genre developed over this period.

The Birth of Venus

One of my favorite painting from the history of Nude art is Sandro Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus. Likely commissioned for the Medici family, the painting, which depicts the Roman goddess Venus, was made in the style of the day. Renaissance art, such as this, frequently featured nude figures, referencing statues of Greek antiquity. There was nothing scandalous about the image at the time of its creation.

Unconventional Portraits

Marie-Thérèse Louise de Savoie-Carignan, Princess of Lamballe by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis, c. last quarter of the 18th century

This portrait of the Princess of Lamballe represents a strange convention of pre-revolutionary French portraits. The exposure of one or both breasts during the 18th century was a symbol of fertility and wealth as well as innocence. A youthful breast and a full figure evoked the statues of Greek antiquity which were so popular during the Renaissance. These features also evoked wealth as a peaky breast on a mother signified the presence of a wet nurse and therefor enough wealth to maintain household staff.

Nudes at the Turn of the Century

Francisco Goya, La Maja Desnuda, c. 1797-1800

This painting by Goya is starkly different than the seemingly scandalous portraits of pre-Revolutionary French. In La Maja Desnuda, the model looks confident and fixes the viewer without shame or shyness. This painting, which represented the Goya’s mistress, was commissioned for a private buyer and should have been protected from public scrutiny. It was nevertheless discovered and shocked the manners of the time for its transgression. The woman’s confidence and suggestive pose were borderline-pornographic to a contemporary audience.

Gustave Courbet, Sleeping Nude Woman (1862)

Gustave Courbet, Sleeping Nude Woman, 1862

Sixty years after Goya shocked Spain with La Maja, Courbet’s Sleeping Nude Woman bears a clear resemblance. This artwork, painted in 1862, shows a woman, partly naked, lying on her bed. Despite being asleep, the model is posed erotically within the male gaze. The viewer of the painter looks upon her voyeristically, whereas Goya’s model looks directly back into the eyes of her beholders. Like La Maja, Courbet’s Sleeping Nude was a scandal.

Gustave Klimt, Danae (1907)

Gustav Klimt, Danaë, 1907-1908

This masterpiece painter during Klimt’s Gold phase shows the sleeping goddess Danae huddled in the shape of an egg, symbolizing fertility. Asleep and innocent, the features of the relaxed faces pose a contradiction with the sensuality produced by her opened legs, her breasts and her half-open mouth. A dreamlike atmosphere bathes this composition is a mythic atmosphere. Danaë was a popular subject in the early 1900s for many artists; she was the quintessential symbol of divine love and transcendence. Klimt’s Danae is much less explicit than Goya and Courbet’s nudes though the eroticism of the painting is sill palpable.

See nude paintings by contemporary artists on Singulart.