Nudity in Art - From a Christian Perspective

This article is a compilation of several blog posts I wrote in 2011. I've since edited them and put them together on this page for easy access to those of you who are as interested in this subject as I am. :-)

Introduction

Ever since graduating from college and starting a career in painting, I have searched for ways to use my artistic calling to glorify God and contribute to our culture in a way that is meaningful and uplifting. In my quest for meaning, I’ve received a lot of advice and suggestions. Many people suggested that I write and illustrate children’s books, donate my time to churches by painting murals, or paint narrative scenes depicting stories from the Bible and great biblical truths. While all of these things have their place, I found that whenever I heard such proposals, I was hardly enthusiastic. Recently I’ve figured out why my reaction was so indifferent and half-hearted.

“Christian art” as we know it has become watered down and sentimental, with little or no basis of reality. It leaves us feeling either warm and fuzzy or cold and empty, because the gravity of everyday life has been stripped from it, leaving only the Hallmark-esque, Sunday-school art we’ve become accustomed to. In fact, we are afraid to embrace “Christian art” as anything more, lest we fall into the secularism of our time.

But what if there’s no such thing as “Christian art?” After all, Christians are not perfect – they, too, can have a skewed vision of the world, and so their art will follow accordingly. Biblical themes have been portrayed in art by Christians and non-Christians alike (something we will get into later on, among other things). How are we to determine which works of art are “good” and which are “bad” from a biblical standpoint? And how will we decide as artists what kinds of subject matter to portray in order to contibute positively to our world?

Though I have little experience and I don’t claim to be an art critic, I’ve given this matter a great deal of thought. So… I humbly offer my opinion here in the hopes that this discussion will spark some thought, and perhaps even inspire other Christian artists out there to reevaluate their own standpoint on art and culture.

The Nude: Timeless Symbol of Culture and Worldview

I’ve decided to address these questions through one of the most controversial topics of all: nudity. I know, it’s a strange way to begin, but I got your attention, didn’t I?

Nudity is actually a subject that encompasses all the aspects of art which I would like to address in my discussion. These aspects incude content (what it’s about), form (the craftsmanship of the work), purpose (what it’s for, or what message it intends), and historical context (how people would have understood the work at the time of its creation).  If the content and form are both good - that is, if the idea or message conveyed is good, and the work is technically excellent, then the work of art may be called "good." We will find that there are many things we enjoy, such as songs, paintings, or movies... but they might not be good based on these guidelines. Taste must be differentiated from truth.

When my husband and I first moved to Texas, I proudly displayed my paintings and drawings in my home studio space. Many of them were academic nudes from various classes I had taken, including a series from my studies at the Florence Academy of Art. However, shortly after we moved in, some family members came to visit, and they brought their two young kids. These children, both under the age of nine, had never seen fine art nudes before. I felt embarrassed and slightly awkward as they peered up at my drawings and exclaimed, “Look, bare butts! Boobies!”

As humorous as this situation may seem, the topic of nudity in art is actually quite a quandery in our culture today, as people are either passionately for it or adamantly against it. Christians and conservatives are especially indignant about their children being exposed to the naked human body, whether it is considered fine art or not.

The truth is, we are indignant because we are ignorant.

The Nude in Art History

Considering how often the nude has been portrayed throughout history, I'm not even scratching the surface here, but I'd like to explain the relevance of historical attitudes towards nudity, as well as knowing the story or idea that a work of art is portraying.

According to the ancient Greeks, who believed that man was the measure of all things, the human body represented an ideal. Thus, the Greek sculptures we see depicting the nude (such as Myron's Discus Thrower, below) show us this ideology. Greek art is highly idealized, as its purpose is to show us what the human form should look like, rather than what we see. Though Christians are inclined to disagree with the content of Greek art (i.e. false gods, deified human beings), we cannot deny that this art is excellently crafted and beautiful in form.

Myron, The Discus Thrower (Roman marble copy- 400 BC)

 Looking at art from the Middle Ages, we see very little nudity. The Medieval artists were focused on creating art that was more symbolic and pointed upwards to God. We especially see iconic depictions of the Madonna and Child, and the saints. Mary is shown to be pure and supernatural. She is not painted realistically, or meant to describe a particular moment in time, as a photographic image might. Instead, she symbolizes something of great importance, which crosses beyond time or history.

Duccio (1255-1318 AD), Madonna and Child, tempera on wood

Just to be clear, there is some nudity depicted in Medieval art, but it was a culure dominated by the Christian faith. From the fall of the Roman Empire and the split of the Greek and Latin churches onward, there were still oppositional forces in play: pre-Christian culture versus a new Christian worldview. Early on, the Christian faith stressed the value of chastity and celibacy. Nudity had negative associations with pagan religions, and unlike the Greeks and Romans, whose focus was on a fleshly ideal, the Church had no need (or desire) to display nude deities in their art. There were also new attitudes against nude athletics, public bathing, and even the value of the human body. Adam and Eve were still depicted nude, but most of the time, nudity was meant to be a representation of the shame, helplessness and depravity of man. I don't believe the artists were prudes (that comes later, with the Victorian era!), but they were creating their art within the standards and worldview of their time. There are a few nude icons painted in a positive light; they are usually depictions of martyrs, saints, or the resurrected Christ. Iconography was initially designed to be symbolic and unrealistic in an effort to avoid idolatry (again, a reaction to the pagan religions). It is ironic that many Christians went on to worship and pray to those icons anyway.

As the Renaissance dawned, artists began to look back at the art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There was a renewed interest in anatomy and linear perspective. Humanism was growing in power and popularity, and quite often, went together with Roman Catholicism rather than against it. It is very difficult for us to imagine the world before Humanism, because we are still living under its influence. The basic idea, of course, is that man’s insight and power are what shapes the world. Once the Reformation took place, Humanism catered almost entirely towards secular activities; however, the Renaissance was steeped with it, and so we must attempt to understand this worldview when studying classical art.

The most common nude themes we see in 16th and 17th century painting is those of Venus (or Aphrodite) and other Greek and Roman deities. Whereas the ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped these gods religiously, no one in the Renaissance actually worshipped them or believed they existed. However, the images of pagan gods became allegorical symbols of very real concepts which could be made visible through art. For example, Mars stood for war, Venus represented beauty and love. The classical Venus was always depicted respectfully and symbolically. Though she herself was not “real,” the love and beauty she represented was absolutely real, and gave the viewer much cause for reflection and realization of that reality. An excellent example of this is Titian’s “Venus and Music.” The woman reclines nude on a couch, while a musician plays. The two figures are separated from each other, but the organist gazes back upon Venus, looking to “love and beauty” for inspiration in his music. It is this symbolism that makes these paintings meaningful; the reclining nude in 16th and 17th-century art represents inspiration. She is a muse. She is not a woman of questionable propriety, because she is not real. Instead she represents the higher things and provides a way for man to contemplate human values and truth.

Titian, Venus with Organist and Cupid (c.1548)

Later on, with the dawn of modern art, the symbolism of the nude would gradually be stripped away, along with meaning as a whole...

The Renaissance and Beyond

As I have mentioned previously, nudity in classical art was meant to personify an idea or to reveal certain qualities of the human condition. During the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was still one of the biggest patrons of the arts, and as a result we have such priceless treasures as Giotto's The Life of Christ frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel and Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel. Both painters demonstrated new-found understanding of anatomy, foreshortening, lighting, form and drapery. Images of Christ being taken down from the cross, or being carried to his tomb, depicted Him nude or semi-nude. I find it refreshing to see the physicality of Jesus in Renaissance and Post-Renaissance painting, because the Bible tells us that He was both fully God and fully Man. As the apostle John writes, "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us."

Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation, in the Scrovegni Chapel (1305) 

Of course, Michelangelo -- who was greatly influenced by Humanism and the work of the ancient Greeks -- took this physicality a step further in his commission for Pope Julius II, painting the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes tell us the story of God's creation, man's fall, and humanity's utter need for salvation as offered by God through Jesus. With over three hundred figures, mixing both characters from biblical stories and figures from ancient mythology, Michelangelo successfully combined Christian theology with the Humanism of the Renaissance. While the amount of nudity met with some criticism, I am inclined to agree with Pope John Paul II when he said, "It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: 'The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame'. The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ."

Michelangelo, detail of Adam and Eve from the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), Rome 

The symbolism of the nude would carry on through the 18th century; we can see an excellent example of this in one of my favorite paintings from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, "Peace and War," by the Italian artist Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (whose work - on a side note - would later greatly influence American artists Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West). Perhaps ahead of his time, the phrase "Make love, not war," comes to mind when looking at this painting. War is represented by the Roman god Mars, who appears fierce and unstoppable in his armor. Pax, the goddess of peace, pleads with him with her gaze and gently pushes aside his sword. Her tender breasts are exposed to symbolize both strength and vulnerability. The two simultaneously come together, and push away. It is a work of art riddled with meaning, particularly as we look at the date it was created and remember the historical events taking place at the time.

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, Peace and War (1776), oil on canvas

However, the above painting is perhaps an exception to the trends that were already taking place by the 18th and 19th century. Art was changing considerably. Not only did God disappear from art, but so did man. Obviously enough, art is a man-made thing. It is what separates man from the animals, for we do not find animals creating works of art, erecting buildings, or composing symphonies. However, the Enlightenment stripped from man even his humanity, by turning man "natural". The consequences were severe: if man is just another animal, then the great ideas believed for centuries to be principles of truth no longer have their meaning. Can there even be such a thing as "love?" Science's answer was that love is nothing more than libido, a carnal and animalistic instinct. Love is sex. The great art critic and historian, H.R. Rookmaaker, has summed it up this way: "Life itself, instead of the varied and deep meaning it had in biblical language - man's full being, his true humanity, his work, dreams and aims, so that Christ Himself was able to say that He is the Life -- life became nothing more than biological life, the beating heart and sexual urges and quest for food and drink. We can understand the man who, standing at the end of this development, asked recently in one of the underground papers, 'Is there a life before death?'" (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p. 47).

That being said, nudity in art changed along with the attitudes and beliefs of the times. Around 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted his mistress in two versions, naked and clothed. In both paintings she is laying on a couch, evocative of the goddesses from the 16th century, which would have been familiar subject matter to anyone living at the time. However, this woman is not a goddess - she is simply herself, clothed and unclothed. It is possible that Goya created these two pictures to show that Venus was dead, and all that was left was a man and his mistress.

Goya, The Clothed Maya, and the Nude Maya (c. 1800-1803), Museo del Prado, Madrid

Gustave Courbet dealt perhaps the biggest blow to traditional themes. These themes included great facts of history, biblical stories, and mythology (such as our reclining Venus), and were used to illustrate both human and Christian truths. Courbet rejected any old ideas for choice of subject matter and began to paint exclusively what he saw in the world around him. He is famous for saying, "I have never seen an angel, so I shall not paint one." Instead he painted peasants and workers, shocking the public by making these paintings as large and important-looking as any of the portraits commissioned by kings and nobles. His paintings tell us that truth lies only in what we can see and feel.  

Eduard Manet took Courbet's ideas even further, and is particularly famous for his "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia." While "Luncheon on the Grass" still looks ridiculous to us, 150 years later, we can only imagine the shock with which it was received in 1863. It depicts two fully-dressed men, picnicking casually with two women who are as naked as can be. Manet painted them on a huge canvas, which would normally be reserved for grander subjects. I would love to elaborate on the history of this painting (a great source for further study is Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism) ... but for our purposes here, the painting simply represents a rejection of the old, and an embrace of a new "reality:" that the only place we might see such a scene is in a brothel or among people of questionable propriety. Gone is the reclining Venus, or the fearless Lucricia demanding justice for the crime commited against her (another popular theme in classical art).

Eduard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (1862-63), oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Manet's "Olympia" also translated the old theme to a contemporary one, by depicting a prostitute reclining on a couch, much like a traditional Titian or Giorgione, would have shown Venus. Instead she is a high-class prostitute, waiting for a client. She gazes out at us, unabashedly and without modesty. Manet included many little details in the painting to make it clear what this woman represented; for example, the black cat symbolizes prostitution, and the orchid in her hair, cast off slipper, and pearl earrings are symbols of wealth and sensuality. Her maidservant brings her a bouquet of flowers, probably sent from a client.

Eduard Manet, Olympia (1862-63), oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In the next segment, I will finish my brief discussion of nudity in art history, and talk about where Christianity ties in to all of this. My goal is help us become more comfortable walking into art museums, educating our children about art, and embracing art as a vocation, by understanding what we are looking at.

Gauguin and the Rise of Modernism

I should at least mention briefly some of the movements that were being questioned by the 19th-century Realists and Impressionists. Up until the mid-1860s, the Paris Salon had been the main authority in art. The Salon accepted traditional work in its exhibitions, but by this time, there were already many signs that the old values were dead. Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and the work of the PreRaphaelites (please look them up - no time to expound here!) - which were characterized by a tightly academic style - tried to revive the old themes but came across as little more than pieces of sentiment and idealized genre pieces. Though much of the work from this time is breathtakingly beautiful and masterfully painted, it lacks a true connection with contemporary viewers.

Example of Academic painting that would be acceptable to the Paris Salon: Alexandre Cabanel 
"Phèdre" (1880), Musée Fabre, Montpellier

We wonder where "Christian art" was during all of this, but the spirit of the age was still very much entrenched in the ideas of the Enlightenment, and God continued to be pushed out of the picture, even in biblically themed narrative paintings. H.R. Rookmaaker describes the spirit of this age as that of the bourgeois, often characterized by the middle class. He writes (forgive the long quote, but he describes it far better than I can!):

The bourgeois were people who looked for certainty and security. With their lips they might have honoured God, but in their hearts they looked for a more 'tangible' kind of foundation. They found it in money, in a career, in status, in their moral uprightness (sound familiar??). And so morality became moralism and insurance often took the place of the assurance that God does not forsake man... These very nice people lived in the Age of Reason. And of course, they looked with dismay on the new generation who were taking to the principles of the Enlightenment. Morals were going downhill, and the old-established rules were being challenged. This was bad enough. And when the new thinkers were preaching that man was basically an animal, that his love was really only sex, then they were shocked...Yet, what could they do?  Had they not got desires themselves? Oh no, we haven't got them, they told themselves. And so they began to push the fact that man has a body, and especially his sexuality, into the dark, hidden corners of life... So towards the end of the eighteenth century the bourgeois world... began to build up the defensive attitude towards sex that later became known as Victorian. We, living so much later, and following this period, can no longer really understand what it was like in pre-Victorian times - how people knew that the fact that they had bodies and sexual urges was because they were human. We can only understand the loss of it. (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, pp. 76-77)

Moving on to more of the secular artists leading up to Modernism... I've aleady mentioned Gustav Courbet, the leader in Realist art which bridged the gap between the traditional and the "modern" (Impressionism), and Eduard Manet, who took Courbet's ideas even further. Meanwhile, Monet, Renoir, and the other French Impressionists took their ideas about reality in a different direction - one which became gradually more accepted by the public than the work of Courbet or Manet, and is still very popular today. The general concept with Impressionism is that these artists painted what they saw, based on their visual perception of the scenes before them and how light and color could be translated to a two-dimensional image. Again, because we are so famliar with Realism and Impressionism today, it's hard for us to imagine that these art movements could be "shocking". But this kind of straight-forward reality was something the public had never seen before.

Not only was painting style and technique changing considerably, but so was subject matter. Epic historical scenes, biblical characters, gods and goddesses, and even portraits of the upper class were being replaced by matter-of-fact pictures of real people and places. There was an emptiness to it that left some artists, such as Paul Gauguin, searching for something deeper (albiet a noble cause, Christians can't accept his solution to the problem as biblical...). He wanted to depict more than the eye could see, and to avoid slavishly copying nature. His new style took on a very human approach to reality by expressing his understanding of the human situation through unique handling of paint, contour, and composition. This quest for the genuine and the real through personal expression gave the artist great freedom to use colors and design in ways that had never been tried before, and it would carry on all the way to our present day as a key characteristic of Modern art.

Gauguin was disenchanted by the lack of authenticity in urban life, and so he sought to discover a simpler, more natural lifestyle by living in the midst of a more primitive culture. His escape from civilization led him to Tahiti, where he did a series of nudes that would define his career and also make a new statement about Western attitudes towards female sexuality. According to Yale professor of humanities, Peter Brooks:

Gauguin wants something else, something that would remain fully erotic but without the connotations of shame, scandal, and exposure. That he repeatedly insisted on the figure of Eve --rather than, in the manner of Bougainville and nineteenth-century Salon painters, moving back into classical mythology and the evocation of Venus -- indicates a stubborn and no doubt accurate perception that Venus was no longer the point, no longer what nakedness was all about in the Western imagination. It is precisely Eve, with all the connotations of sin and shame, and the complex entry into the knowledge of good and evil, that is central to our perception of nudity, and that thus must be reconceived. As Gauguin stated in an interview in 1895, in response to the question why he had gone to Tahiti, 'To do something new, you have to go back to the beginning, to the childhood of humanity. My chosen Even is almost an animal; that's why she is chaste, although naked. All those Venuses exhibited at the Salon are indecent, odiously lubricious....' Thus Gauguin takes on the almost impossible challenge of revising Eve, of creating a nude in paradise whose nakedness is meant to be looked at in joy and erotic pleasure without the sense that her evident sexuality is connected to evil and pain. His success in this revision is of course dependent on a certain depersonalization of his Eve: in praising her "animality," he removes her from traditional cultural constraints and brackets her own subjectivity, in gestures that could be considered typical of both patriarchy and colonialism. (from "Gauguin's Tahitian Body," online source).

Gauguin - "Two Tahitian Women" - 1899


Gauguin's work, as Brooks goes on to describe, is very much about sexual freedom; for example, in "Two Tahitian Women," the subjects stand unabashed before us in all their erotic beauty. Their expressions are vacant, and so they become no more than an object of the male gaze.

As Brooks states, Gauguin frequently used Eve as a theme in his works of Tahitian female nudes. I would like to clarify that while this may seem a pure attempt to revive beauty as of old (and the paintings are quite beautiful!), Gauguin's "Eve" played a much different role. As we have seen with Manet's "Olympia," the problems with nudity in 19th-century art had to do with finding an appropriate setting for it. After all, nudity in Salon art (see works by Ingres and Jerome, for example) had become decadent and eroticized under the guise of classical themes. Gauguin wasn't merely attemping to revive the old themes - if so, he might have chosen Venus, rather that Eve. However, Eve's nudity was depicted throughout art history as representational of sin and shame, along with the knowledge of good and evil. Gauguin's desire was to reconceive the idea of the nude into one that was erotic but without any connotations of shame or scandal. Thus he rejected the concept of the biblical "Fall," and the idea that nakedness should in any way be connected with sin. In order to accomplish the paradoxical combination of sensuality and chastity, Gauguin had to both remove his Eve from society and depersonalize her in such a way that we look at her as we would an animal in the wild.

Gauguin was interested in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage." In works such as "The Noble Woman" (shown below) and "Two Tahitian Women" (above), it seemed as though he had been successful in finding the ideal and separating himself from the loss of innocence in Western society. His Tahitian Eves live at peace and harmony with nature, effortlessly and innocently fulfilling their natural instincts, while the male viewer is given full liberty to view and partake. But there was a cost to this radical  reworking of biblical themes, this challenge against nudity in traditional art. First, by taking to the opposite extreme of the sexual repression in Western culture, Gauguin set the stage for the sexual "freedom" that would characterize the 20th century. Second, his depersonalization of the female nude may have done more harm than good for Western sensibilities towards women, as it objectified the figure by allowing the viewer to look on, free of emotional connection or guilt.


Paul Gauguin - "The Noble Woman" (1896)

Modernism, and the Christian Response

We at last move to some of the modern painters and their approaches to the human form.
Pablo Picasso took Gauguin's depictions of women to the next step. His work was remarkably inventive; no artist has since been able to revolutionize painting the way he did. He was a creative genius in ways that conservatives are often resistant to give him credit for. He was also very talented; if you look at his earlier work (before 1906), you can see that he knew classical technique and anatomy. This nude, for example, "Blue Nude", from 1902, is quite beautiful, emotive, and well-rendered.

Picasso - "Blue Nude" - 1902 - private collection

However, Picasso soon went in a different direction. While Gauguin's work had remained essentially representational, his figures were somewhat androgynous. Picasso took this much further, to a point where one could no longer distinguish between men and women, or even between a person and his surroundings. Picasso sought a solution to the universal question --"What is real?" -- in abstraction, the breaking down of forms to their most basic, simplest shapes. Cezanne had already paved the way; now Picasso made his canvas his universe, and made himself the god of it. The results are frightening. Here we see his defining Cubist work, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." It shows five prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona, all painted somewhat differently. Their faces look more like demons or African masks than human. Surely this is not a depiction of the human figure as God intended it, either in form or content...

Picasso - "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" - Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" - 1907 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) broke down form even further, until nothing was recognizable and art became simply absurd. His objective was not to create art but to destroy it. Often he would give pieces a title that had nothing to do with the work, but would be suggestive or provocative in nature (for example,"The Passage of the Virgin to the Married State"), causing the viewer to look for something in it that resembled its title.

I will only defend one of Duchamp's pieces, "Nude Descending a Staircase," an enormous abstract work consisting of cylindrical and conical elements that appear to move in space, but give us no clue as to the subject's sex, age, individuality or character. I think this piece is actually quite successful in its depiction of motion, in which case the nude is simply the means by which it is conveyed. There is no silhouette more striking than the figure, and had he used any other subject matter, he may not have been able to pull it off. As long as one is willing to regard the subject as an abstraction, rather than a person, it works in form and content. But for the most part, Duchamp's body of work questions everything the more conservative artist stands for...

Marcel Duchamp - "Nude Descending a Staircase" - oil on canvas - 1912 - Philadelphia Museum of Art

There is much I could say about Duchamp and his destruction of conventional art, but I must save that for another blog post. For our purposes here, it's safe to say that as Modernism progressed, the old traditions were done away with, and the beautiful nudes of classicism seemed to be gone forever.

On the bright side, there were (and are) still several outstanding artists practicing traditional techniques during the Modern era, and for their contributions, we are most grateful.  These artists - Eakins, Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Homer, Repin and Wyath, just to name a few - kept the old aesthetic alive.

Thomas Eakins - detail from "The Swimming Hole" - 1884-45 - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth 

I am not saying that only realistic nudes are acceptable, and that abstract art is bad! That is definitely not the point I'm trying to make. Instead, I believe that the nude is such a sensitive subject that it must be viewed from more than one angle, with questions such as, "What was the artist's intent?" "What is the historical and intellectual context?" "Was it painted to be beautiful and uplifting in some way, or to tear down and destroy?" The bigger question at hand is: how can we as Christians accept and embrace nudity as a crucial aspect to our artistic heritage? Purpose, content, form (or execution), and context, are all crucial when observing a work of art. I agree wholeheartedly with Matt Clark, an art teacher at Veritas Academy in Lancaster, PA, who says in his article, "A Christian Perspective on Nudity in Art", "We do a disservice to our students (and ourselves) when we teach them to be reactionary instead of thoughtful and discerning." The whole article is definitely worth reading (he includes some great Scriptural examples), especially for those of you who are teachers and are perhaps still unsure about where you stand on the issue.

In this article, I've mentioned at least a few of the reasons for the use of nudity in art, but let me sum them up, and add a few more. Nudity can:
  • Symbolize great ideas or truths
  • Represent our humanity and help us see our need for a Savior
  • Depict reality, not only in secular subject matter, but in biblical subject matter as well
  • Help artists develop their skills in anatomy, gesture, and expression
  • Help us appreciate, from an aesthetic viewpoint, the beauty of the human form
This is all under a huge assumption that the nude has been depicted in the proper context and rendered with the deepest of respect. The artistic nude has been greatly abused over the past few centuries, and as a result, Christians have shied away completely. But it is time that we drop our prudishness and reclaim the nude in our art for noble purposes, like those mentioned above.

I've already discussed the first couple of points and given examples of these from art history. The third point, about art depicting reality, can be seen countless times in art history in many different forms, from the nude  Christ child of Renaissance paintings to the beach scenes of Sorolla (public nude bathing was very common in 19th-century Spain), to the intimate bath scenes of women and children by Mary Cassatt. I haven't even touched on the subject of nudity in scenes depicting mothers and their children, but you probably already know my view on this - that those done by Cassatt and others (particularly women artists) are excellent works of art because they beautifully relate a level of tenderness and maternal love that is unparallelled. (I've tried my hand at it, myself! See this post here)

Joaquin Sorolla - "Female Nude" - oil on canvas - 1902 - private collection

So let's discuss the last two points, artistic skill and aesthetics, which often go hand in hand. I’m immediately reminded of my first time drawing and painting from a nude model. I was taking a summer figure painting class at the Florence Academy of Art. There were ground rules about working with the model (i.e. no photography, absolutely no touching the model, asking the teacher to speak to the model rather than speaking to her directly, etc.). These rules seemed like common sense but only solidified the sense of awe and respect I already felt upon viewing firsthand this beautiful woman before us.  To speak in Platonic terms, I was moved by the tangible presence of the model’s true “essence”. She was so... real... and as I placed her contours and shapes on my canvas, I began to comprehend that reality in my work. But with such reality came great responsibility, not just in showing respect for the model, but in how I would convey the model’s “form” to the painting's viewers. I realized it wasn't at all about me, but about a sensitivity to the subject and how that would translate to other artists and non-artists alike.
 
When working from the nude (at least in my own experience), there is a kind of progression that happens in the artist's mind. First, there is that awe, and an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. There is a strange reality about the naked form that compels us to look away, and yet we can't stop looking. But once the artist begins working and observing the model, there is a breaking down of the complex for the sake of beginning - a simplification of shapes and lines and negative space. Suddenly the model is less intimidating, as I begin to see her in circles, ovals, cylinders, etc. As the drawing develops, so does my understanding of the model. Subtleties and nuances of shape and color temperature are not lost on me - those visual treasures are what I find most fascinating and fun about working from the nude. The model shifts in her pose; there are thoughts and musings going on in her head that I will never know, but perhaps I can catch a glimpse of it in my painting. It is a journey of discovery, one which, for the traditional artist, has nothing to do with sex or arousal -- only beauty. My point is, artists have studied the nude for centuries because there is no greater challenge.

Anna Rose Bain - "Florence" - Figure painting from my studies at the Florence Academy of Art, oil on linen, 2006

Anna Rose Bain - "Unmasked" - 2012 - oil on linen - Private Collection

I like what Gordon College (a Christian school in Massechussetts) says in their policy statement on the use of nude models in art classes: "We have chosen in the Art Department... to work respectfully with the human figure attempting to bring honor and glory to God in the process. We base this, in a Christian context, on a time-honored professional practice, holding the belief that the human form is the crowning acheivement of God in Creation - worthy of our expert knowledge, and analogous to the scientific knowledge of the human body in medicine and biology. In our tradition as artists, it is seen as the linchpin of our practice of visual knowledge. If you can accurately and expressively draw, paint or sculpt the human form, you can draw anything." 

A gorgeous example of an "academic" nude, by contemporary figurative artist Robert Liberace: "Maenid" - oil on board

In addition to developing strong technical skills by working from the nude, the artist has the wonderful opportunity to simply create a beautiful picture. This sounds a little silly, but aesthetics are no less important than any of the other points I've brought up. The visual impact of a strong composition, color harmony, and gesture can make for a great painting, without needing any kind of underlying message or narrative. One artist whose work does just that - depict beauty for beauty's sake - is California artist Jeremy Lipking. He is one of many amazing artists who are currently helping to revive realism, and I absolutely adore his work. Here is one of my favorites, "French Beauty." This painting is not even about the porcelain nude on the couch - it is more about the stunning combination of colors and shapes, and the pleasing direction these visual elements take the eye around the painting. That red makes me exclaim, "Wow!" every time I look at it!

 
Jeremy Lipking - "French Beauty" - oil on linen

Here is another example by North Carolina artist Scott Burdick -- a piece he created simply for the sake of beauty.

Scott Burdick - "Forest Beauty" - oil - 40" x 30"

As I said before, there is a huge responsibility on the part of the artist as we walk a fine line by using nudity in our art. What is our purpose in painting the nude? Is it to show beauty, or incite arousal? With pornography so prevalent in our culture, and a heightened sense of eroticism in Modern art especially, it's no wonder that parents are hesitant to take their kids to art museums. I hate to subjectify the matter too much, but it really comes down to the individual. One person's art might be another's pornography. The artist may have pure motives in creating a fine art nude, simply with the intent of making a beautiful work of art and celebrating the human form... but the viewer might take it differently. Like so many other things in this world, art can start out as something good and then be perverted into something that is not. It is the artist's responsibility to keep his or her work within the proper context and to know know their own heart. The artist should also be sensitive to the viewer; if, by painting nudes, we are leading someone else astray and causing them to stumble, then to us it is sin. From a Scriptural standpoint, we can refer to Paul's epistle to the Romans: "So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:12-17)." The artist is obviously not the only one who must be responsible in this matter. If you know your own weakness, then learn to discern what to look at and what to avoid. But don't judge others for their artistic sensibilities.

Finally, the concerned parent asks, “Why subject my child’s innocence to nudity for the sake of beauty?” The answer is: sensitivity, education, and timing. These will be different for everyone because children mature at different rates. If nudity will cause the artist or viewer to stumble, then it should best be avoided. But I firmly believe that children should be educated about art history, so they can understand why fine art nudes are more than something to giggle at in museums! We should explain to our children that God made man and woman naked in the beginning, and that He pronounced His creation "good." But when sin entered the world and the man and woman disobeyed, they were ashamed, not of their bodies (for their bodies were God's creation), but of their sin and the realization that they were naked. Naked does not equal "bad" - instead, there is a proper time and place for it.

I thought I would close with one more example from a contemporary painter (forgive the lack of sculptural examples - I am somewhat biased, being a painter myself...). Below is a painting by Ohio artist Carl Samson, entitled, "Triumph of Truth". It is the perfect allegory of traditional art taking back its ownership from Modernism, by depicting an athletic, spritely young woman standing defiantly atop a dead Minotaur, a subject often painted by Picasso, but in Samson's painting, rendered realistically. This painting sums up beautifully everything I have discussed from art history and in my points about the purpose of nudity in art. I would like to quote Carl Samson himself here as he explains his painting further: "In 1907, Picasso painted 'Les Demoiselles D'Avignon' - a full frontal assault on all that was held dear by the great painters... The Demoiselles, incidentally, are featured behind this model in my painting. She's strong, confident and intent on exacting some revenge for all the injustices perpetrated on the fairer sex by Monsieur Picasso." Samson has created a masterpiece, which perhaps makes a prophetic statement about the direction of fine art. Beauty is making a comeback, with works like "Triumph of Truth" proudly paving the way.

Carl Samson - "Triumph of Truth" - 96" x 62" - oil on canvas

This concludes my discussion on nudity in art from a Christian perspective. Of course, I am happy to answer any questions you have - and if you disagree with me, by all means, leave a comment! I love controversial discussions, especially over things I'm passionate about. Thanks for reading. :-)
For Further Reading and Review, here are some of my recommendations:
Article Copyright 2013 by Anna Rose Bain

Share/Bookmark

25 comments:

  1. Elaine Stecker-KochanskiApril 22, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    A very interesting article; thank you Anna

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much, I certainly got a lot out of this blog!! I have been studying art history the past few years and loved the way you portrayed some of the greats in the history of nudity in art. Also learning more about Humanism and the influence. I am Catholic, and in recovery....which for me means I am today a better Catholic. I have started to go back to drawing from the nude , as the masters and you stated, the nude presents every drawing problem their is! I joined with the Philadelphia Sketch Club, the oldest artists club in the US. Thomas Elkins was a instructor their back in the day....I will certainly print this blog and read over again, If I have your permission to do so. Thank you again and also for the references.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, I am so glad to hear that! You can certainly reference my article as much as you want (and share!). :-) I am very familiar with the PAoFA and Thomas Eakins' influence there - just visited last spring. :-) Best wishes with your own artistic journey and exploration of the figure. :-)

      Delete
    2. I have learnt so much from this article! Thank you! I'm currently looking at the use of the nude through art history and the links with religious views and cultural views on when nudity is and isn't acceptable! Thanks again :) I would also like to reference this article within my own study, if that would be ok?

      Delete
  3. Hi Anna,
    I have just installed an exhibit of more than 100 drawings and three 3-D dioramas which deal with the male figure. My goal with this project was to present the male figure in a fresh, authentic and "real" (meaning genuine) way. Of course the work ended up involving many layers and issues: 1) composition (how is the figure occupying the picture plane?), 2) academic (can I construct a representation of the figure that reads as "believable" - but not slavishly realistic), 3. can I distinguish this body of work as art, not as a salacious exercise?, 4. how does this relate to our own times (we live in a time when nude sculpture and paintings no longer are considered appropriate for public buildings and spaces), 5. and lastly, there is no denying there still exists a stigma related to homosexuality. (a roomful of male nude pieces automatically raises flags on this issue). Anyway....thank you for your article. It is a great review of the history of the nude in western art. I would be interested in any comments you have regarding my response! (Sorry, for the wordiness.) - Bill

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bill,
      Sorry - just now seeing this! Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with all of your concerns about this exhibit; we recently had an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, featuring works from ancient Greece (from the collection of the British Museum). It struck me that in ancient Greece, the male nude was considered the highest earthly form of physical beauty, whereas, depictions of the female nude were still considered (even at that time!) scandalous. But, as we know, there WAS a lot of homosexual activity going on among men as part of Greek culture, so the stigma remains. I would be curious to see your exhibit. Where is it? Thanks again for your thoughts!

      Delete
  4. Anna: First, I love your work. I have just started portrait painting recently. I have spent some time painting in Plein Air, and was fortunate to join a group that works from a model once a week. As a retired art teacher for public schools, I wish I had this article in my files when I was teaching. You did an excellent job with great references. I have a blog and I would appreciate it if you would allow me to use this blog article. I would certainly reference you, your web, blog and etc. I found you via searching for Richard Schmids' technique of beginning a portrait with the eye! Ah, the WEB. How we find information in this age of technology. My blog is: http://peggywilsonpainter.blogspot.com Thank you for consideration.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Peggy,
      So glad you found my blog and that it was of some benefit to you! I would be honored if you should my thoughts on your blog. Thanks so much and please stay in touch! :-)

      Delete
  5. Anna, I comment so late in the string! But at least I've happily stumbled on your post.

    First, you've simultaneously saved us and opened for us years of research and exploration. I read the entire post on my iPhone during this past Saturday's exercise walk throughout my neighborhood. Afterwards I explored on my Art Authority app the artist of one of your example pieces, Thomas Eakins. Intriguing to discover he was also a photographer.

    Which leads me to my question... how does photography fit in or not with your explorations on nudity in art? As a photographer, I've heard that nudity within photography is not acceptable because it is too literal and is somehow not distanced enough. Are photographers to be left out from the beauty of the nude form?

    Thanks in advance.

    Sean

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Sean,
      Welcome to the discussion!
      Thank you for bringing this up - you're right, I didn't touch on photography at all. The truth is, I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on nude photography. Admittedly, I've used photo references before out of necessity to finish nude paintings begun from life, but always with some reluctance, and they were always just that... reference. With photography, I still get the feeling that it's easy to look too long and too hard, to pry. The model is somehow more raw, more exposed. It is just a snapshot. And when I'm finished with the painting, I always destroy the reference photos out of respect for the model.

      I do believe that photography as an art form can still ask all the questions that I address in my essay, but it's an area where we have to be that much more careful about our intentions and the use or misuse of our final product.

      From a technical standpoint, a good photographer, like a good painter, is not just looking at the "things" in front of him. He also enters that place in his mind where it's about analyzing the lines, rhythms, shapes, values, color harmonies, and overall composition to ensure an excellent shot. Which leads me to believe that is possible to have pure intentions in nude photography for the sake of art. It's just easier for the audience to misconstrue an artful photo than a painting or sculpture.

      Therefore, it is ultimately up to us to educate our audience and to keep our hearts pure. We ought to be ready to take on the questions with an honest answer that doesn't merely justify ourselves (a lot of terrible art has been made this way), but rather, glorifies God and uplifts beauty and virtue through art.

      As I look back on this essay, I realize there are a lot of avenues still unexplored. Thank you for keeping the dialog going!

      Delete
  6. Anna, could you give your thoughts on this? If God clothed us after man sinned, then is it okay to photograph and paint nude people? Are we supposed to stay clothed (obviously this does not apply in the shower)?

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Finally, the concerned parent asks, “Why subject my child’s innocence to nudity for the sake of beauty?” The answer is: sensitivity, education, and timing. These will be different for everyone because children mature at different rates. If nudity will cause the artist or viewer to stumble, then it should best be avoided. But I firmly believe that children should be educated about art history, so they can understand why fine art nudes are more than something to giggle at in museums! We should explain to our children that God made man and woman naked in the beginning, and that He pronounced His creation "good." But when sin entered the world and the man and woman disobeyed, they were ashamed, not of their bodies (for their bodies were God's creation), but of their sin and the realization that they were naked. Naked does not equal "bad" - instead, there is a proper time and place for it."

    I absolutely LOVE this.
    My thoughts exactly.
    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you for your comments on this blog. Brian

    ReplyDelete
  9. A very interesting essay and, I must say, a tremendous effort to reconcile your Christian beliefs with your aesthetics; but, unfortunately, in the end, you cannot achieve that synthesis unless you take away from nude beauty what has and will be always one of its essential element: eroticism!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I prefer the word "sensuality" over "eroticism," but yes, there is some truth to that.

      Delete
    2. Anonymous, Eroticism is not necessarily an essential element of nudity, perhaps the potential for the erotic is there based on sexuality, which is inherent to the human body. However, sexuality is essential because it is part of how we were created to image God. Genesis 1:27 says "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." This verse isn't repetitive just for the sake of repetition, three different Hebrew terms for man were used, one referencing man as an individual, one man as in humanity, and the final is gendered, male with female. That is to say that there is something in the individual person that images God, something in the whole of humanity and something in the gendered and sexual relationship of man and woman that images God. To take away sexuality from the human body would be to strip it of a God given reflection of himself. So to say that sexuality and Christian beliefs cannot be reconciled would be a fallacy. Eroticism is created by context, while we are still sexual creatures at the doctors office, to say it is an erotic situation would be erroneous. Additionally to say that eroticism is sinful, or bad would also be un-biblical as there is an entire book in the bible, the Song of Songs, that is dedicated to the praise of the erotic love in a relationship. However, because we live in a sinful and fallen world, the image of God that we bear has been twisted and marred in many respects, sex and all of its component parts is one place where we see that very clearly. But as with many things if we paint with too broad of a brush and dismiss it all as bad, we miss out on many of the good gifts that God has given us to use for his glory.

      Delete
    3. "Eroticism" is imposed by the viewer. Nudity does not have to be erotic. Nudity is simply human's physical presence. In all my years of life painting (nude models) at art school and beyond there was honestly always respect, no sexualisation and a wonderful Human connection between all artists and model/s. It is a liberating and companionable experience, a real grounding experience.

      Delete
  10. Greetings Anna
    Would you please comment on Titus 1:15 with respect to what yo have written in your article?
    Could it not be argued that the Christian model, artist and viewer of the work can have entirely pure motives but what about the unbelieving viewer as in the second part of the verse? Would not the the model and/or the artist be providing the unbeliever an occasion for sin?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi John, thank you for taking the time to read my post. I’m not sure that there is any conflict between what I have written and what Titus 1:!5 says. An unbeliever will find a way to pervert just about anything – that is the nature of our fallen world and of the one who has rulership over it. The scales have not yet been removed from his or her eyes and they are unable to see things in light of God’s grace and the freedom of Christ. I would be more concerned about causing a fellow Christian to stumble, as he and I are aware of what is sinful. People struggle with addictions of all kinds. If I paint a still life that depict a glass of wine, should I avoid letting it be seen by someone who struggles with alcohol addiction? Will it send them straight to the liquor store? Perhaps, but I really doubt it. Likewise, if I am painting a tasteful nude that in no way resembles pornography, is it going to derail someone with a porn addiction? While Christian artists can’t know the hearts of all who see their work, we can still try to be sensitive. For example, when I post a nude on Facebook, I customize my audience so as to exclude those who I know have struggled with porn or who may be offended by the post. Obviously I’ll never know entirely who is viewing my work, but as long as I know my work is pure before the Lord, and I am sensitive to my known audience, then I don’t think I should stop creating it.

      Delete
  11. Having read your article, my mind teams with questions, but the one that seems most salient at the moment is this :Are you aware of the statistics for sexual abuse across every culture and both genders? If so, have you considered the impact of nude art on victims of abuse at any length? And if you have, what conclusion do you come to as regards how these victims ought to respond to nude art?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Danielle,
      That is a very broad topic. I wrote this post years ago knowing that I was only scratching the surface and that art, along with the culture that surrounds it (not to mention the individuals who create it) has many layers.

      I am one of the lucky ones who has managed to avoid suffering from sexual abuse, so I don't feel 100% qualified to answer your question.

      My mind immediately goes to Gerome's painting of the woman in the slave market, where human trafficking and gratuitous nudity are highlighted. This could, perhaps, be a painting which might offend and stir up pain for someone who has been abused. While the painting is beautiful in form and execution, I have to question the artist's motives and subject matter. In that sense, it is not "good."

      However, many paintings throughout history have depicted suffering in such a way as to challenge the viewer's moral stance, which is a good thing. If we're going to talk about sexual abuse, why not broaden that question to abuse in general? One need only look at one of the millions of paintings of a naked Christ on the cross--or for a contemporary example of suffering, Juan Ramirez's "Scars of a Great Nation"-- to see that abuse has been the subject of MANY great paintings. These paintings showcase the endurance of the human spirit, the holiness or innocence of one who suffered, and much more.

      I won't deny that there are many artists (male artists, mostly), both past and present, who depict the nude with a lack of respect. When a woman becomes objectified in a work of art, we start to see the lines blur. Art certainly has been perverted and misused throughout the ages, but so has every other aspect of our lives here on earth, since we are sinful beings in need of a Savior. With Jesus' help, I truly believe that we can bring a pure and holy perspective to the art world.

      Delete
    2. Fantastic article and response, Anna.

      Danielle, as a survivor of sexual abuse, I will share that viewing and creating nude art has made a positive impact on my recovery. I know this may not be true for every survivor, but for me, it was crucial to acknowledge and define my own truth. The process of viewing and creating nude art not only validated that there is sacred and pure beauty present in the human form, but it also empowered me to see genuine beauty in myself. Just as mourning is individual, so is recovering from abuse. How one responds to nude art is equally independent and if given insight will reflect their own physical, emotional, mental and spiritual state of the healing process.

      Delete
  12. Greetings from the beautiful Pacific northwest coast (about 3 hrs north of Seattle).

    An excellent presentation of your views on nudity in art. Refreshing to read your artist's perspective and not just the bla bla of academics, theologians, pastors. etc.(even though I am also in ministry with an appreciation for serious academics).
    I agree with you in total. I'm a 71 and a classically trained fine artist Ontario College of Art & Design - 1964-68) with a special passion for figurative work (including silverpoint). I began writing about my artistic freedom after I went back to school at age 65. It became the essence of my graduate work (Master of Art in Communication & Technology, and a Master of Theology) featured in my book "Creative Worlds: A Dissertation on Creative Freedom and Spirituality" (Amazon). I am currently finishing my Doctoral degree, focusing on my writing of epic poetry, the use of metaphor in my epic poems, and the context of my lived-experience as artist, author, and mentor, in light of the Kingdom of God.
    I really appreciated your choice of paintings, yours included - truly worth the aesthetic pleasure of exceptional work underpinned by the sound evidence of Academy disciplines.
    Excellent choice of reference books as well.
    Blessings.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I truly love your work! You are an incredible artist. However I disagree with you on this issue. You have given an incredibly excellent history of nudity in art. But this is all man's opinion and man's decision. As a Christian God's opinion is what is important, not man's.
    Just because it has been done throughout history does not make it right.There has been sin in the world since the fall of Adam (man). The Bible is very clear on this issue and it doesn't matter what man thinks, only What God thinks.
    Even if you left God out of the equation and looked at it from only a moral issue there is still a problem. You have attempted separate erotic and sensual. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sensual as: relating to,devoted to, or producing physical or sexual pleasure. The Cambridge dictionary says sensual is: expressing or suggesting physical,especially sexual, pleasure or satisfaction. Other dictionaries have similar definitions.Therefore sensual is sexual is erotic.
    Some nudes are painted extremely well. But what is the difference between a nude that is painted well and one that is photographed well. They both can elicit a sexual response,even an unwanted one. A nude by any other name is still a nude.
    There is a reason that a mother would steer their children from the room with nude paintings in it (In a museum or a home). And I believe this is the same reason you were embarrassed when the children were talking about your paintings in your studio. That reason is that deep down we know it is wrong. Otherwise,why would a child make you feel bad if there were nothing wrong with it?
    Our society is constantly bombarded with sexual images and we have become desensitised to it. What would have been shocking on 50 years ago (or 30) is now an everyday occurrence.
    Anna I don't mean to attack you personally. You seem like a wonderful person and you are a fantastic artist. But I hope you rethink your position on nudity in art. Most of all, since you are a Christian, I hope you seek the Lord's will on this issue.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I love Jesus! I love Art! Thank you for taking the time to write and post this.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...