For centuries, nudes in art were chiefly perceived as an homage to the sensuality of the naked human form – usually female. The standard idea was that of the masterful male artist painting a beautiful woman. But throughout art history, we find courageous women artists who contradict this one-sided view.
While life drawing and painting was regarded as a normal and necessary part of a male artist’s academic studies, this field was closed to their female contemporaries.
Women were long excluded from nude painting classes for reasons of “decorum”. Instead, they had to make do with studying plaster models, animals and children.
From 1890, women artists in France were able to participate in mixed life drawing classes. In Germany, however, the field was considered the sole preserve of men, and women artists were long denied access to nude subjects. Systematically barring women from nude classes meant that for many years they were unable to fulfil a central requirement of a professional art education.
Despite all the obstacles in their path, throughout history several women artists found a way to conquer the domain of the nudes. Back in the 17th century, Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi was able to establish a position within the male-dominated art scene, creating heroic female nudes. A century later, the successful late Baroque painter Giulia Lama even painted male nudes for altarpieces – an extraordinary achievement for a woman of her day. Distinguished court painter Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun not only produced portraits of French nobility, she also painted idealized nude portraits in the neoclassical style.
The first known female nude self-portrait was painted in 1906 by Paula Modersohn-Becker – with her piece “Self-Portrait on Sixth Wedding Anniversary”, she bravely flouted the moral conventions of her time.
Suzanne Valadon was another self-assured woman painter, whose candid depiction of women demystified nude painting.
In “Adam and Eve”, a portrait of herself with her young lover, she presents an equal, emancipated couple. Yet as an artist she was denied such equal treatment – in order to be allowed to exhibit the painting she had to conceal Adam’s genitals under fig leaves. A woman painting a full-frontal male nude was considered scandalous.
The nude paintings produced by expressionist artist Helene Funke also caused a scandal in their day, with critics appalled by the unabashed representation of her female subjects. Her contemporaries Helene von Taussig and – probably the most important female representative of Viennese modernism – Broncia Koller-Pinell also created “shocking” nudes.
Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the femme fatal of art deco, was celebrated during her lifetime for her coolly distanced yet sensually erotic female portraits. But Natalja Gontscharowa, icon of the Russian avant-garde, had to answer for her modernist female nudes in court after they were seized by the police.
Surrealist Leonor Fini played with conventional gender roles by portraying powerful, clothed women sitting above, or atop, naked sleeping men.
Austrian artist Maria Lassnig created unconventional self-portraits with her “body awareness” paintings. Over an active period of six decades, she explored her own body in probing, unfiltered nudes – long before the rise of feminist body art.