Before the invention of photography, a painted, sculpted, or drawn portrait was the only way to record the appearance of someone. Portraiture is a very old art form going back to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period. The plastered human skulls made in the ancient Levant between 9000 and 6000 BC, represent some of the earliest sculptural examples of portraiture in the history of art. They demonstrate that the prehistoric population took great care in burying their ancestors below their homes.
Portraits have been used to show the power, importance, virtue, beauty, wealth, taste, learning or other qualities of the sitter. They have almost always been flattering, and painters who refused to flatter, such as William Hogarth, tended to find their work rejected. A notable exception was Francisco Goya in his apparently bluntly truthful portraits of the Spanish royal family.
Among leading modern artists portrait painting on commission, that is to order, became increasingly rare. Instead artists painted their friends and lovers in whatever way they pleased. Most of Pablo Picasso’s pictures of women, for example, however bizarre, can be identified as portraits of his lovers.
Unclothed figures often also play a part in portraiture. The nude dates to the beginning of art with the female figures called Venus figurines from the Late Stone Age. But, from prehistory to the earliest civilizations, their nakedness is generally understood to be symbol of fertility or well-being — “Clearly,” art historian Bryan Zygmont said, “the Paleolithic sculptor who made this small figurine would never have named it the Venus of Willendorf. Venus was the name of the Roman goddess of love and ideal beauty.” In other words, that kind of name tells us more about those who found the small carved statue in 1908, than those who made her.
In India, the Khajuraho Group of Monuments built between 950 and 1050 CE are known for their erotic sculptures, which comprise about 10% of the temple decorations. Nude images in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt reflect the attitudes toward nudity in these societies, even if being naked in social situations was a source of great embarrassment for anyone with social status — but not due the connection between nudity and sexual impropriety.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern era in art was the blurring of the line between the naked and the nude. This occurred with paintings like The Nude Maja, 1797, by Goya, which in 1815 drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, and Olympia, 1863, by Édouard Manet because of its modernity — despite her pose is said to derive from the Venus of Urbino by Titian, Manet’s Odalisque assumed to be a prostitute of that time, perhaps referencing the male viewers’ own sexual practices.
Before Olympia, first exhibited in 1865, Manet had previously shocked the public of his time, by painting nude women in contemporary situation in his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1862-1863. A concept then taken to extreme consequences by the ideas of modernism — the idealized Venus was replaced by the woman intimately depicted in private settings, as in the work of Egon Schiele — or, in different ways, by the Cubism and Geometric Abstractionism of Picasso and Henri Matisse.
By the end of his life, Lucian Freud’s works had become icons of the Postmodern era, depicting the human body without a trace of idealization, as in his series working with an obese model. “I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.”
Cornerstoness of this context are The Dresden Venus of Giorgione, c. 1510, which started a long line of famous paintings including the Venus of Urbino by Titian, 1538, and the Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez, c. 1650. But as early as in the Renaissance, the reinvigoration of classical culture restored the nude to art, as in the case of Donatello’s statue of the Biblical hero David, 1440s — the first freestanding statue of a nude since antiquity —, or Michelangelo’s massive David, 1501–1504, and Nudes in Sistine Chapel ceiling — which reestablished a tradition of male nudes in depictions of Biblical stories. The monumental female nude returned to Western art in 1486 with The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli for the Medici family.
In his The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form, 1956, Kenneth Clark makes the often-quoted distinction between the naked body and the nude. Clark states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations. This separation of the artistic form from the social and cultural issues long remained largely unexamined by classical art historians.
According to Clark, the explicit temple sculptures of tenth-century India “are great works of art because their eroticism is part of their whole philosophy”. Great art can contain significant sexual content without being obscene.
In the United States nudity in art has sometimes been a controversial subject when public funding and display in certain venues brings the work to the attention of the general public. And then, works of artists such as Egon Schiele, Balthus or John William Waterhouse, even today, are still the subject of censure in countries such as Germany, UK and Italy.
On the other hand, many artists of our time — especially cartoonists — seem to be make more and more fun of this strange duality, by definitely focusing on a more classical Roman aspect of portraiture, in their own way…