Paintings of still-life objects, landscape and paintings of animals are impressive, express emotions and tell stories. Images of the human figure, in particular nudes, however, translate emotions most acutely.
Early Nude Art Works
The earliest known nude is the celebrated Venus of Willendorf, found in Austria. She is from the Stone Age (ca. 38000 - 10000 BC). Surprising to the archaeologists, sculptures of the nude female figure in the rest of the world were quite similar.
The earliest, most celebrated, nude art known today are from Greece and Rome in the period of Antiquity (900 BC - 300 AD). The realism of these works were quite impressive, and typifies the "Greek God" sculpture look.
There are not many early paintings available to us. These may not have survived the ravages of time. Hence there were only sculptures to tell the story.
The late Antiquity to Pre-Renaissance Paintings
The late Antiquity to Pre-Renaissance (300 - 1450) paintings were dominated by scriptural Christian paintings. This era was also classified as the Middle Ages and included Gothic art, Trecento and Romanesque paintings. Human figures were mostly stylized and symbolic rather than expressive. Nudes (if at all) were depicted as part of a narrative, rather than expression of emotion.
The Renaissance Paintings
The Renaissance period (1500s) was the rebirth of attention to the realistic human figure. It was this time that Artist's signed their names onto their works and re-focused on the skill of executing artwork to impress, rather than indoctrinate.
Renaissance painters express the nude as beautiful, flowing curves and soft white skin so fleshy that one can feel their warmth. The genre is whimsical and airy like the paintings Sandro Boticelli.
Famous Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci made a lot of study material on the human anatomy, which is fodder for many artists after him.
Michaelangelo Buonarroti (1475 - 1564) was the most illustrious artist of his time. He is regarded foremost as a sculptor. His nudes were beautiful, muscular, god-like. They were almost touchable and much more than realistic. His grandest paintings are frescos on the Sistine Chapel.
The figures of Raphael (1483 - 1520) were more soft-focused and smooth toned. Less musculature, but still strong body language.
Titian (ca. 1488 - 1576) painted nudes of different genres, from altar pieces to mythology. His paintings are dynamic, and there is a lot of motion of figures in his works.
The Baroque Era
The Baroque era (1600s) nudes are dynamically lighted like in a modern screen-play. The paintings are dramatic and 3-dimensional. Even though some of the story-telling in the paintings were based on Christian scriptures or Mythology, the characters in them were somewhat contemporary, real people. They were like actor in a movie set.
Baroque nudes, like those of artist, Rubens, were opulent, full of movement and drama and extravagant. Their bodies were full, but they seem light as air,
18th Century Paintings
18th Century nudes were the product of social and political climate of its time. The art (mostly) got less flamboyant and more stately, and majestic. A good number of nude paintings were borne out of this era. It was the dawn of satirical art. Many artists were also bound by the business of portraiture. Nudes, in this era remained dreamy, sensual like with the paintings of Jean-Auguste-Domique Igres, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Francois Boucher.
Unlike the Baroque nudes, however, subjects had more 'lighting'. The use of Chiaroscuro, a lighting technique was frequently used to enhance the figure with dramatic lights and darks.
Art of The 19th Century
The 19th Century nudes developed to less "in-the-flesh" and more stylistic. The artists of this era were varied and more experimental in their style. Painting styles were experimented with, and there were movements or -isms that were borne from this time. In broader terms, their artists were Realists, Romantics, Impressionists and Expressionists and many other sub-categories which we recognize today.
The Realists were about style. Their subject matter were focused on contemporary, real life ordinary subjects. They reject the idealism in painting ideas used in Christianity or mythology as sole subjects for art.
Of the famous Impressionist nude painters are Edouard Manet. His subjects were like that of Goya, portraying scenes of social and political strife. His nudes, however, were defined by loose brushstrokes. The entire composition of his paintings consists of flat, but subtle, tones with creative use of color and shape.
More typically impressionistic paintings include the paintings of Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Cezanne. The figures are even less detailed, with focus on more vibrant shape and blocks of colour.
The Expressionists were more varied in the style. The nudes were much poignant in the message of the paintings. The focus is on communicating than purely aesthetics. Of the famous artists of this genre are Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustav Klimt, Egon Shiele, and Henri Matisse.
The 20th Century and Today
The 20th Century began with tumultuous years of the two world wars. Great art derived from this era were interesting and expressive. Abstraction is born, and often the subject of "nude" is no longer a recognizable shape. The 18th Century adopted styles of the Impressionists and Expressionists still live on. Contemporary artists are, in one way or another, influenced by their predecessors.
This is the era of photography and cinema. Realistic representation seems no longer a priority, and neither is there any more journalistic role for art as in Goya's time.
The best way to fully appreciate the paintings of nudes in history of art is to view the images all in one page.
The art world today is more interesting than ever. With social media on the internet, more artists are inspired experiment with styles and techniques of painting. The form of the human nude figure is interpreted and re-interpreted. In any form, paintings of the nude human figure always fascinates.
Nik Helbig is an artist and art blogger living in Austria. She specializes in figurative paintings on canvas.