By Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander—Vice-President, Head of Evening Sale at Christie’s and a grad of Sotheby’s Institute of Art—takes BAZAAR behind the virtual fig leaf and pinpoints ten of history’s most impactful nude paintings, from Matisse to Modigliani.
FRANCISCO GOYA, THE NUDE MAJA, 1797-1800
Goya’s Nude Maja, confident in her nakedness as she unashamedly gazes out at the viewer, is infamous for her direct confrontation. Rumored to be a portrait of Goya’s own mistress, this painting was commissioned for the private boudoir of a wealthy patron, hidden from the public eye. But when discovered, this erotically-charged masterpiece shocked audiences at the time and paved the way for the transgressive, boundary-pushing ethos of Modern Art.
GUSTAVE COURBET, SLEEPING NUDE WOMAN, 1862
When asked to make a painting of an angel, Gustave Courbet, the father of Realism, famously said, “I have never seen angels. Show me one and I will paint one.” Courbet’s nude is totally different from the flawless Venuses that populated canvases in the 1800s—rather she is totally real down to her rumpled stockings, non-idealized proportions, and unkempt armpit hair. This daring emphasis on reality paved the way for the Impressionists like Monet to see the world through their own eyes rather than attempt for perfect illusionism.
GUSTAV KLIMT, DANAE, 1907
A virtuosic fusion of bright gold and luxurious red pigment, Klimt’s Danae is one of the most beautiful paintings from the Viennese Symbolist movement. Portraying the classical princess as she is visited by Zeus as a shower of gold, Danae is as sensuous as a work on canvas can get.
HENRI MATISSE, BLUE NUDE (SOUVENIR DE BISKRA), 1907
This masterpiece is one of Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings, known for their wild colors and fluid gestural lines. Matisse’s model was not actually blue, of course, but the artist’s eye steered him towards the subtle shadings of color that reflected his feeling rather than reality, creating paintings with deep emotional charge that still resonate today.
MARCEL DUCHAMP, NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, 1912
Marcel Duchamp, the enigmatic father of Contemporary Art, shocked audiences with this Cubist masterwork. The painting, ostensibly depicting a nude woman walking down a flight of stairs, has been so abstracted into geometric planes that it is impossible to determine any sense of concrete time or space. With this work, Duchamp pushed Cubism farther than Picasso, paving the way for further explorations into abstraction, a main thrust of 20th century painting.
AMEDEO MODIGLIANI, RECLINING NUDE, 1917-18
Amedeo Modigliani began his professional career in Paris as a sculptor, before transitioning to work on canvas. His deep influences from African sculpture and Cubism are readily apparent in his painted nudes, in which one can practically feel the presence of the model. Reclining Nude’s eroticism is so palpable that when the painting was displayed in Paris in 1917, the gallery was almost immediately closed by police due to obscenity. Now the work stands as one of the true masterpieces of the early 20th century.
EGON SCHIELE, FEMALE NUDE LYING ON HER STOMACH, 1917
Encapsulating the early Expressionist movement, Schiele’s tortured, passionate works on paper directly communicate the link between sex and death, pleasure and pain—as elaborated by the theories of Sigmund Freud. The artist’s twisted line creates crooked figures that seem almost disfigured, but still deeply beautiful and sensuous.
TOM WESSELMANN, GREAT AMERICAN NUDE #92, 1967
In the mid 20th century, Pop Art, as championed by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann, brought American popular culture into the realm of high art—utilizing the language of advertising and celebrity to turn a mirror on the fast, bright American world of capitalism and consumption. Wesselmann’s Great American Nude series used the style of Playboy centerfolds to update the nude to a contemporary context: one heavily focused on the objectification and commodification of sex rather than its psychological aspect. His sleek, colorful, alluring nudes offer themselves to the viewer in an explicitness not yet seen in art history.
LUCIEN FREUD, BENEFITS SUPERVISOR SLEEPING, 1995
The grandson of Sigmund Freud, Lucien Freud painted intimate, revealing portraits which turn a raw light onto the human form, exposing flesh in all of its mottled, awkward detail. Freud had deep connections with his models, often making them sit for a year or more for a single portrait. In this portrait of Sue Tilly, Freud abandons the classical desire for the idealized form to instead create a work with an immediate and intense emotional impact.
MICKALENE THOMAS, A LITTLE TASTE OUTSIDE OF LOVE, 2007
Until this point, this list has only included white male artists, with women only able to participate in art as a naked objects of desire. Mickalene Thomas, an African-American woman living in Brooklyn, subverts this trope, instead creating paintings that empower their subjects by injecting African-American voice into art history. By painting a nude in the same pose as Courbet or Manet, but one whose black identity is readily on display, Thomas forces the viewer to confront the legacy of objectification and sexism inherent in the art historical narrative.