A Brief History of Nudes

· By Team PLEASE

When we think of nudes in today’s terms, unsolicited, pixelated ill lit imagery might come to mind for some bizarre reason. But the term nude is mainly associated with fine art and the exploration and illustration of the human form.  

Nudity and art have been coupled throughout human existence. Picture yourself wandering around almost any museum in any country, your gaze will eventually landing on a nude regardless of the medium. Let’s take a look back on our rich history of nude art that celebrates the naked form and its capacity for expression.

Now considering the context of this article, one thing to consider before reading on is that naked figures in art are not necessarily sexual, and in many cases are not, nor do figures in art need to be naked to be considered erotic. Erotic art is a subject and an entirely separate article which we can definitely dip into another time.

Let’s get back to it, in fact, let’s start with some of the very first pieces of art discovered are the venus figurines from the Upper Palaeolithic era, dating back to over 20k years ago. These carved pieces interpretations vary, being seen as religious, an expression of health, fertility, and self depictions by female artists.

The ancient Greeks are synonymous with the naked form and immortalising it. Being naked back then was an everyday event, embraced whether it was dining or competing, Greek men loved being in the buff, so it is natural that art would imitate life.

Many ancient Greek sculptors associated values such as triumph, moral excellence and physical beauty with nudity and their work that revolved around it.

Throw religion into the mix in the middle ages, and all the naked art was banned with the exception of pieces depicting Adam & Eve, whose nudity conveyed their sin of course, and pieces of Jesus, whose nude body revealed his wounds of course. Nudity took a 180 during this time and went from being glorified and celebrated to being seen as weak and sinful.

Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello and Michelangelo were prolific in bringing male and female nudes back into classical art. 

Fun fact : Donatello was first to  sculpt  the naked David in 1409, the first free-standing nude statue since ancient times. And only a few decades later, Michelangelo carved the David we all know of today . 

And even more of a fun fact, though Renaissance sculptors may have had access to female models, they preferred to model their work off of males. It’s uncertain as to why, some say Michelangelo preferred men, others say androgyny was the preferred look of the time.

Nudity was a frequent feature in the mythological and allegorical genre of painting in the 18 and 19th century Western art. But French Impressionists rebelled with exhibiting surreal bold nudes. 

Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe was an example of how the Impressionists refused to conform to convention and in that, breaking boundaries in the art world.

Looking to the east, the nude body was mainly absent from Japanese art for many centuries. Although male and female nakedness was a routine part of life, specifically within bathhouse culture, Japanese artists didn’t develop an interest in representing the naked body until the 19th century, and mainly due to their work being influenced by Western art. Laws in Japan allowed painters to depict nudes if they were allegorical, although many painters often defied this rule.


It’s very evident that most artists documented in art history are male, and so the female nude has often been associated with the “male gaze”. The Male Gaze refers to the idea that women (both within and outside of art) are meant to be passively ‘looked at’, while men are in the active position of viewer. 


But with the rise of female artists in modern and contemporary art, women have been exploring this issue and expressing their work through their own gaze. 

Contemporary women artists such as Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Nan Goldin, and Vanessa Beecroft are known for using their own nude bodies or bodies of other women to make statements against sexism within art history as well as society at large.

For this 1999 performance for the Kaldor Public Art Project, the 40th in Beecroft’s series of works, 20 models stood in formation for periods of two and a half hours. Dressed in red Wolford tights and Prada heels, the models were given a sheet of papers with 54 rules such as “hold position; look plain, boyish, quiet.” As Beecroft explained in the exhibition statement, “The practice is to stand, not talking, and to wait until it ends, being watched as a picture and photographed as though on a photo shoot.” Beecroft turns the ‘male gaze’ on its head, and interrogates femininity and desire within modern consumer culture.

From ancient deities, to classical Greek ideals, through surreal rebellion, the history of nudity in art has a long and interesting trajectory. The biggest change of the past one hundred years has been the inclusion of female artists. Yet, the basic reason for wanting to depict unclothed figures has remained constant over time: the human body is a wonderful and miraculous  sight to behold, both clothed and unclothed.