Nude Models in European Art

Although the nude model may be thought of as an object of prudishness and sexism, this genre is far more than a naked person. Nude paintings are based on a visual formula that is designed to evoke emotional and sexual admiration in the viewer.

For this reason, the Royal Academy recently allowed guests to enter its Marina Abramovic exhibit through a door blocked by two naked models.


In the 15th century, scholars called the new emphasis on Classical studies humanism. They used the term as a description of a philosophy which praised the soul and nature of the human being. Humanists turned to ancient Greek and Roman texts, which were available in a flood newly discovered or translated manuscripts. They believed that recovering the writings of Aristotle, Cicero and Livy was akin to recovering reality, a process they called “humanitas.”

This catalogue, assembled by the J Paul Getty Museum, explores how the nude figure evolved in northern and southern Europe between 1400 and 1530. It identifies the centers of humanism that shaped this development and describes how artists in these different cultural environments reclaimed and developed the humanist concept of the body.

The Renaissance was a time of sexual liberation, as painters reclaimed the power of the human body and depicted it for the first time since antiquity. They explored erotic themes of the world of dreams, and even same-sex desire, in works like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. They also used a variety of artistic techniques to depict the naturalistic human figure.

While this movement was rooted in the classical heritage, it was not without its critics. Some saw it as a blasphemous, heretical attack on the Christian faith. Some, such as Marsilio Ficino who reworked Plato’s ideas and harmonized with the Bible, thought that humanism can transform society on its most fundamental levels, through individual moral reform.

For Italian humanists, the classical legacy was the foundation of all culture, and the study of humanities (Studia Humanitatis) was considered a key to gaining understanding of God, nature, art and life itself. This was the philosophy of uomini universali–well-rounded men who could serve their community.

In northern Europe, humanism became less central to the arts. The northern artists Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden concentrated on male nudes, while Hans Holbein and Lucas Cranach turned to classical subjects with erotic implications. This was partly due to the Reformation’s restrictions of religious art, and also a reaction against women. Some of the northern humanists’ paintings had misogynistic overtones as a result.


In the 15th century, the rediscovery and reintroduction to art of classical sculptures and the figure was a major influence on European art. Nude models were used in workshops and for a variety of subjects, from religious scenes to mythological stories and pagan rituals. Many artists experimented with new poses and shapes, but they also tried to represent the body according to ideals of physical beauty.

The exhibition and its catalogue reveal the extraordinary diversity of approaches to the naked in Renaissance painting. This was an era where attitudes toward the female form were as conflicted today as they are. The fact that male nakedness was more common in workshops is a reflection of the fact that it wasn’t as socially problematic to depict men naked than women. In this context it is striking to note that Botticelli introduced Italy’s first female naked figure in 1485.

In contrast to the favored expression of flawless beauty, Renaissance artists also portrayed images of ill-health and aging. They were interested in portraying human sexuality and procreation, and they drew upon both surviving classical examples and newly excavated sculptural masterpieces.

They also used the figure to conduct scholarly humanist inquiry in order to discover what it is about the human form that makes it beautiful and worthy of praise in art. They discussed anatomy, drawings and canons for proportions. Humanist painters like Leonardo and Durer provided valuable guidance.

In the early 16th century, a fascination with classical antiquity led to an expansion of workshop practice and the use of live models in depicting both female and male figures. Artists began to explore new themes, such as biblical stories and heroism, while trying to create more realistic, less idealized depictions. The paintings of Rubens, for example, with their generous figure and radiant flesh, helped define the term rubenesque.

The exhibition and its catalogue also highlight the way in which Renaissance patrons incorporated nude figures into decorative cycles of art for their palaces and other buildings, as well as into commemorative bronze medals. Nude women were a favorite among Renaissance artists to represent alluring, seductive, and sexy women who could symbolize the virtues of fertility and virility in order to appeal lustfully patrons.


The Baroque is the term used to describe a broad cultural movement and artistic movement in Europe between the early 17th century and mid-18th century. Its style is dramatic with exaggerated movement and clear, easily understood detail. It is also characterized as a flamboyant, almost ostentatious style. The origin of the name “Baroque” is disputed, although most scholars believe it is derived from a combination of elements, including the word “barroco,” which philosophers used in the Middle Ages to describe an obstacle in schematic logic. The word was then used to describe a contorted, involuted process or idea.

Baroque art reflects the fascination with classical antiquity that prompted artists to rethink and expand their approach towards the naked figure. The Baroque period featured less idealized, more naturalistic depictions both of men and women, as opposed to the refined and courtly Mannerism that characterized the Renaissance. Many artists worked from life models, as evidenced by the numerous nude paintings and sculptures produced during this era.

It was also during the Baroque era that the practice of incorporating biblical and mythological allegories in paintings became common. These figures, whether naked or clothed, emphasized the meaning of the painting through facial expressions, gestures and poses. These allegories can also be used to convey social messages or evoke particular emotions.

Christian attitudes, especially those concerning chastity, celibacy and virginity, continued to discourage depictions of nakedness in artwork. Even so, a few examples survived from the Early Medieval period, such as Donatello’s statue of Judith and Holofernes and Gentileschi’s painting of the same subject. However, the latter piece was particularly effective because of its immediacy and personal resonance: Gentileschi’s model for Judith resembled her own rapist, Agostino Tassi.

The fascination with the naked influenced the works of Baroque sculptures like Peter Paul Rubens. His female subjects were depicted with generous proportions, and with radiant flesh. Rubenesque is the word he coined to describe this characteristic. The Baroque period also saw the proliferation and use of Rococo furniture, decorated with gilded Scrolls and trumpeting Cherubs. The flamboyance of the Baroque eventually gave way to the clean lines and rational symmetry of Neoclassicism.


Modernism, which took hold during the 20th century in Europe, saw artists break away from the Academic tradition to emphasize the intimate portrayal of the nude in private settings. In this new era the body was simplified and abstracted as seen in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or structuralist nudes. Modernism also emphasized the close link between art and anatomy, encouraging artists to dissect their subjects to understand the human skeleton as well as the placement and character of muscle.

Contemporary artists such as Morimura, Thomas, and Essaydi continue to draw on the legacy of the reclining nude in their work. Their re-envisioned compositions honor the historical precedents of paintings such as Manet’s Olympia and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, while also addressing modern issues of sexuality, race, and gender.