The Nude In American Art
Figurative Painting and Sculpture   

Ever since artists began creating art, they have incorporated sexual themes into their work. Ancient civilizations were replete with sexual or erotic imagery, and their relationship to sex and the human body is clear. It could be said that the beginning of all art is the human figure. As children we draw it in stick form. Early Greeks and Romans established the classical standards for sculpting the human figure. The painters of the Renaissance carried the classical notion of the nude onto the painted canvas. The Pre-Raphaelites of the late 1900s rejoiced in the sensuality of the human form. The cubist and surrealists stretched and strained the figure to its visual limits in the early part of the 20th Century. Americans lead by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) cherished the nude as the basic building block for the development of young artists.

Thomas Eakins, perhaps the most impressive painter of the nude working in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s, received little recognition and earned his living by teaching until he was dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for presenting a nude male model in a class that included female students. Eakins (1844-1916) was a kind of Leonardo da Vinci for the modern world. He studied and used science; he was smart, curious and insatiable. He liked real life. The works he produced - beautiful paintings of the real world as he saw it - are like precisely built models. He enjoyed the human body. For Eakins, the nude was both a personal interest and an important academic discipline that he brought back from Paris to a country ambivalent toward the human body. In his Naked Series of photographs, Eakins attempted to produce a definitive resource for himself and other artists by making pictures that cataloged nude human body types and poses. For Eakins, photographs were just one more technique, provided by science, that he could use to make his paintings better.

From early academic nudes in a European tradition by John Trumbull (1756-1843), Washington Allston (1779-1843), and Benjamin West (1738-1820) to the more candid and unapologetically naturalistic nudes of Eakins and the sensual figures of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and from the Pop humor of a Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) to the wit and historical irony of the painter twins Doug Starn and Mike Starn (b. 1961), the nude human form is a recurrent obsession of American artists. A work such as the Starn 'Twins' Nipples' takes a well-known image drawn from the sixteenth century and updates it into one that is sexually charged with provocative implications. But what are the characteristics of the nude in American art? Emily Genauer in reviewing a historical survey of the nude in American painting, (NY Herald Tribune 10 Oct, 1961) once said: "Since nudes in all countries and centuries possess standard equipment, it's difficult to say precisely why the pictures at the Brooklyn Museum right now are so thoroughly American."

In Victorian art, the nude was one of the most controversial subjects, while at the same time, it was one of the most prevalent, from Royal Academy paintings to mass-produced photographs and magazine illustrations. In contrast to other parts of the world there are numerous examples of the West's greater unease, and societal inconsistencies, regarding the artistic portrayal of the human form. For instance, a southern California women's club indicated that no nude paintings would be displayed in their 2003 art exhibition.

Many time-honored paradoxes exist involving how the body is portrayed: the difference between the naked and the nude, the sensual and the pornographic, the cerebral and the corporeal. For example, 19th century Paris born Victor Nehlig (1830-1909) painted 'Pocahontas and John Smith', (1870) a dramatic interpretation of Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith, which reflects the artist's academic training as a history painter. The partially nude form of Pocahontas and muscular bare-chested Indians allowed Nehlig to display his skill at depicting the human body. Although nudity was rare in nineteenth-century American art, one might assume that even the most provincial of viewers of that time could hardly have perceived this tribute to Pocahontas's purity and goodness as immoral or offensive.

The nude has undergone a gradual liberation from academic constraints, prudery and moral censure despite, on one hand, the lingering and indigenously American ambivalence about the decorousness of the unclothed and on the other, a joyously frank embrace of the sheer physicality of the all-American nude.

The American nude comes in many shapes and sizes, both genders and all ages, young and old. It can be as chaste and restrained as a classical marble or as potent and provocative as a full frontal photograph. The varied emotions and broad range of the nude's functions render the figure by turns a goddess, an innocent, a bather, a hero, a seductress, a social provocateur. There is a great breadth of emotions conveyed in mankind's fascination with its own form -- from the idealized classicism of Benjamin West's Musidora and Her Two Companions of 1795 to the unblinking realism of contemporary painter and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989).

No less varied is the broad range of media in which the nude has been rendered and the artists' stylistic approaches to the theme -- academic, realistic, abstract, surrealist, and photographic. While life studies from the live nude model have been at the core of academic art instruction since the Renaissance and practiced for much of this country's history, the uses of the nude ultimately were as varied as the individual artists themselves.

Classical art itself had, as early as the fifth century B.C., emphasized sensual aspects of the male body; by the late classical period, the female nude came to play a significant role in Greek art. The idealized form of Greek art became the standard for academically trained artists, who worked from the live, nude model, and academic formulations for the classical nude were fundamental in late 18th and 19th century art.

European painters influenced American art, and created controversy, from this country's very beginnings through World War II. Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) work, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (1912) created a sensation when it was exhibited in New York in February 1913 at the historic Armory Show of contemporary art, where perplexed Americans saw it as representing all the tricks they felt European artists were playing at their expense. The picture's ‘outrageousness’ seemed to be in its seemingly mechanical portrayal of a subject at once so sensual and time-honored. The painting became in itself a symbol, stemming from its remarkable aggregation of avant-garde concerns: the birth of cinema; the Cubists' fracturing of form; the Futurists' depiction of movement; the chromophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge, and Thomas Eakins; and the redefinitions of time and space by scientists and philosophers.

Another example of an influential European painter would be Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), whose paintings of women had strong influence on American artists. Although no one re-created his ultrafeminine females, several followed his ideas. Some may consider Eugene Speicher (1883-1962) to be the painter whose work perhaps most closely resembled Renoir's. The figure in his "The Blue Necklace" (1937) has the same curvaceous appeal. Also influenced by Renoir was Leon Kroll (1884-1974), as may be noted in "Nude in a Blue Chair" (1930). Similarly, Frederick Carl Frieseke's "Nude in Dappled Sunlight" (1915) and "Nude" (1925) have a strong resemblance to early Renoir.

Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874-1939) worked with a brilliant, Impressionist-inspired palette and focused on the female figure, often a single voluptuous nude, which he depicted in intimate boudoirs, in sunlit flower gardens, and in other secluded exterior settings. A frequent model was his wife, and together they shopped for costumes including the parasols that were so frequently held by his subjects.

Born in Philadelphia, and later a student of Rodin in Paris, Harriet Frishmuth (1880-1980) became one of the ground-breaking female sculptors in the early 20th century. Some of her models danced to Victrola music so she could capture them in motion.

Parisian born Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935) arrived in Boston in 1906 where he became enamored with Isabel Dutaud Nagle. She, 10 years older than he, became the passion of his art and life. He established a studio in New York where he repeatedly sculpted the figure of Isabel.

Tom Wesselmann (1931-2004) is known for his Pop-Art nude figures—especially his ‘Great American Nude’ series. He did nudes so repeatedly that it seemed an obsession. During the mid-1960s, he focused solely on female nudes, presenting them as sex objects with emphasis on breasts, mouth, and genitalia.

Eric Fischl (b. 1948) a New Image painter of the PostModern movement, is known for provocative, harshly realistic figure and genre scenes loaded with connotations of domestic drama.

John Currin (b. 1962) is a contemporary painter who was part of a group that sought to resurrect figurative painting, His portraits and nudes have received widespread attention, and his specialty is cartoon-like women who veer between the appearance of total bimbo and older women who are uncomfortable with their sexuality.

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) is a figure artist whose preferred medium was egg tempera. His subjects are usually male figures treated satirically. Cadmus first stirred controversy and gained fame in 1934 with his painting done in Majorca titled "The Fleet's In," a satire of sailors on shore leave carousing with homosexuals and prostitutes. It was so upsetting to Navy brass that their protests caused it to be withdrawn from public view.

Lawton Parker (1868-1954) held various teaching positions in Paris and the U.S., and in 1902 settled in Giverny, where he lived and painted among Guy Rose, Alson Clark, and Frederick Frieseke. He depicted his subjects in sunlight to get the effect of the light at various angles on the figures, often nude females.

Mel Ramos (b. 1935) painted pretty, sexy women as pinups or trophies. A typical example of his Pop style was "Chiquita," oil on canvas, 1964. At the height of modernism in the 1950s, when figuration almost died out across America, he and other California artists kept it alive during the 1960s. Portraiture was essentially dead at that time, and although nudes were occasionally painted, they were no longer idealized. With society’s increased openness about sex, nudes became erotic and almost pornographic.

Known as a great colorist focused on serene mood, harmony, and rounded shapes, Milton Avery (1893-1965) was an abstract painter whose work is a dialogue between line, shape and muted color. Avery is considered one of the most sophisticated 20th- century artists, and although never associated with a particular movement, influenced succeeding generations of artists including Color Field painters Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. Most of his faces and figures are in silhouette, presented as two-dimensional color areas amidst other areas of color.

The nude remains an important subject in contemporary art. In twentieth and twenty-first century presentations, the nude has become a vehicle for complex social, societal and self-image issues. It has been influenced by the changing mores and sexual emancipation of society brought on by the feminist movement, the gay movement, the rise of AIDS, and the increase of violence in all aspects of society. Graydon Parrish's (b. 1970) realistically drawn, figurative works often act as classical allegories for current social concerns. His painting ‘Remorse, Despondence and Acceptance of an Early Death’ (1997-1999) deals head-on with the consequences of sexual activity resulting in AIDS.

Many artists use the nude to question and elucidate female identity and its meaning in contemporary society. Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1963) plays the beautiful surfaces of her serious paintings against her intentionally stereotypical images of female identity -- particularly the air-headed sex kitten. The proportions of Yuskavage's bodies are always skewed, exaggerating inequalities to a disconcerting degree.

Jeff Koons (b. 1955), who was married to an Italian porn star-turned-politician, depicts the nude with an unapologetic sexual directness in such works as ‘Woman In Tub’(1988) which in 2001 sold for close to three million dollars.

The depiction of the male nude has undergone significant changes in the art world as well. The nude male as a subject in itself, not merely an academic study, became popular in the final decades of the nineteenth century in the photography of Edward Muybridge and Thomas Eakins as well as in numerous painted images. A century later gay liberation would put a new perspective on the male nude, demonstrated in the work of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe.

A few of many additional artists noted for nude subjects are painters Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), Polly (Ethel Starr) Thayer (1904-2006), Lee Krasner (Pollock) (1908-1984), and Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924), as well as sculptors Hiram Powers (1805-1873) and Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937).

Strong reaction to nude works is nothing new. In the late 19th century, when Munich-trained Otto Bacher (1856-1909) painted his resplendent ‘Nude Outdoors’ (1893) in Long Island, controversy resulted in response to his rendering of a naked model in bright dappled color.

Approximately a hundred years later, as one example of a group now presenting exhibits of specifically nude works, the Lexington Art League has since 1987 put on such a show. The League has been aware of potential opposition to the content or theme of exhibits of ‘the nude’, and have met vocal groups of individuals who are not comfortable with the subject of the nude human form. However, interestingly enough, the exhibit has become one of the most anticipated and well-attended exhibits put on by the Lexington Art League. It has even been featured on television news programs on many occasions (including the inaugural exhibit in 1987). While this does not, in itself, justify or give credence to the show, it does indicate a certain acceptance within the community. Organizers have asked themselves why are so many are attracted to the show year after year? Is it prurient curiosity? Sexual gratification? Admiration for the technical and expressive skills of the artists? Love of the classical theme? Organizers believe that the study and portrayal of the nude human form truly is important enough to merit this specialized thematic exhibit, and that through these figurative works, as is true for all art, we catch a glimpse of ourselves and our humanity.

Another venue for presentation of an exhibit featuring the nude has been the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Their show ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’, exhibited Victorian representations of the nude, both male and female. While concentrating on painting, sculpture, and drawing, the exhibition also explored the depiction of the nude in photography, popular illustration, advertising, and caricature. Cutting across conventional categories of style and period, ‘Exposed: The Victorian Nude’ offered a fresh and challenging vision of Victorian art and culture, as well as a new historical perspective on some of the moral and psychological preoccupations of our own time. Six major themes encompassed the many stylistic changes within the nineteenth century-from the Old Masterly style of the early Victorian period, through Pre-Raphaelitism, Aestheticism, High Victorian Classicism, Impressionism, and Post-Impressionism.

In the world of collectors, despite high appreciation of nudes, the American marketplace does seem to have its limits when it comes to nude works, according to Julie Keller of Art Business News, and buyers prefer what some refer to as the ‘demure nude’. The most sellable works might be classified as ‘conservative’, painted from a rear view, or discretely covered.

There are many theories revolving around Americans’ attraction to demure rather than explicit nudes, most of them revolving around the country having been born in a Puritan culture. There appears to be a more limited exposure of nudes in galleries, due to this more conservative attitude about nudity, a generally distinct difference in the acceptance of nudes in Europe versus America. “I see a double standard in the West” says Florida based artist and dealer Fred Szabries (b. 1964). “The nude and the figure is portrayed sexually to sell products, but it is deemed inappropriate as art. I think it’s a case of the current rampant political correctness that is constricting all facets of society. Despite the primarily contemporary Western view that the nude can be offensive as a form of decoration, it has been used through the ages and therefore is considered acceptable, providing it is not explicit,” says Szabries.

For artists, the beauty and complexity of the human figure is the prime impetus for painting it. Perfectly capturing the light reflecting off flesh or rendering the exact angle of a rounded shoulder is perhaps one of the most difficult, yet rewarding journeys a painter can embark upon. There is also the mysterious sexuality of the naked body. In painting nudes, the artist attempts to bring to the viewer’s eye that special mystery of humanness that lies below the skin.

For some collectors, however, the sexuality inherent in nude paintings is a bit off-putting, and there is not as universal a collector for nudes, as, for example, a landscape or still life. More seasoned collectors are sometimes more apt to purchase them, because they are more likely to appreciate a painting or print for its technical mastery rather than its subject matter.

There are numerous examples of the West’s greater unease, and societal inconsistency, regarding the artistic portrayal of the human form. One instance being Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1989 photography exhibit, that was cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. after Senator Jesse Helms decried the more graphic sexual images as pornographic. The Washington Project then picked up the show, where it promptly became its most profitable exhibition ever. The extreme reactions garnered by the show, both in favor and against, served to highlight society’s continuing ambivalence toward sexuality.

According to Grady Turner, art critic and executive curator of the newly opened Museum of Sex in New York, an increasing number of galleries are nonetheless exhibiting work that addresses sex and sexuality. Pet Silvia (b. 1953) an artist whose works are often of an overtly sexual nature, is co-owner of a New York gallery. He finds the hesitancy with which collectors approach artists dealing with sexual themes as perfectly understandable. He points to such works as Edouard Manet’s 1863 painting of a nude prostitute, ‘Olympia’, now considered a classic, but once the cause of outrage among viewers and critics alike when it was first shown in Paris. Silva does however criticize the mainstream art world for sometimes dismissing erotic work as pornographic.

Many artists find the belief that art should not seek to arouse as prudish. For example, Armenian born artist Yuroz (1956-), now working in the United States, has painted a series of works called ‘Hollywood at Midnight’, explicitly intended to arouse sexual feelings.

The "standard equipment" of the nude human form will no doubt continue to be a subject of controversy and focus in the evolution of American art.

Credit for much of the above information is given to art historian and author William Gerdts, and to catalogue entries by Bruce Museum Curator of Art Nancy Hall-Duncan. Also credited are ART BUSINESS NEWS articles ‘Demure, Conservative Nudes Entice American Collectors’ by Julie Keller; and “Erotic Art’ by Claudia La Rocco.

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