When Great Women Artists paint nudes
Strip out the male gaze, and you end up with some fairly remarkable artworks, as our new book makes clear
When we see a female nude depicted in 16th century European art, many of us will also picture a male painter, capturing or imagining the likeness. However, as our new book, Great Women Artists, makes clear, female artist have been depicting the female body for centuries, even if they haven’t always depicted it entirely free from male supervision.
One of the earliest nude images in the book is Minerva Undressing by Lavinia Fontana (above) “Fontana was the first female artist to achieve critical and commercial success in Counter-Reformation Italy,” explains our new book. “The daughter of a prominent painter, Prospero Fontana, she trained in her father’s studio in Bologna – a hub of intellectual life in the university city. In her youth she earned recognition for her portraits and went on to paint altarpieces and grand mythological scenes to rival those of male contemporaries of the Baroque movement. Seen here is her last-known painting, a groundbreaking instance of a female nude painted by a female artist.”
Such fame eluded the 19th century sculptor Camille Claudel , despite having equally good connections. “She rented a studio with a group of young female artists, and by 1884 was employed by Auguste Rodin, who became her lover in a stormy relationship that lasted until 1893,” explains our book. “Her work has been repeatedly compared to his, yet Claudel distanced herself from his practice while continuing to seek large-scale public commissions. Her admirers found something shocking in her – the critic Octave Mirbeau describing her as ‘a revolt against nature: a woman genius’."
Astute readers will have noticed that The Waltz , pictured above, is not actually a nude. Though this wasn't for want of trying. "While an earlier, fully nude version of this work was deemed too explicitly sensual to be publicly displayed unless modified with drapes, and a large-scale marble was never made. Such institutional censorship exacerbated Claudel’s bouts of depression. Isolated after her father’s death in 1913, she was committed against her will to a psychiatric institution by her diplomat-poet brother, Paul.”
The Welsh-born 20th century artist Sylvia Sleigh fared a little better. She was a realist painter known for her groundbreaking gender reversals. "In some works, Sleigh deliberately subverted gender roles, such as in Turkish Bath, which echoed the composition of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s painting of 1852–9, but cast lounging naked men as subjects. Despite such political undertones, she also made a point of highlighting beauty in every sitter, regardless of their gender. She often painted the same people multiple times, including her friend Paul Rosano , who, in this work, adopts a classical Venus-like pose, often performed by female models and suggested in the title.”
Yet for a truly challenging nude, readers should turn to page 232 and take a look at Du Oder Ich (You or Me) by the German painter Maria Lassnig . “This striking self portrait of the artist’s naked, hairless, elderly body demonstrates her method of ‘body-awareness painting’, a term she coined to describe her efforts to paint bodily sensations, which Lassnig at times combined with external realities. Here, terror, violence and the absurd combine in a larger-than-life figure that resists easy interpretation, yet powerfully challenges conventional representations of the female nude in art history.”
To find out more about these works and many more order a copy of Great Women Artists here.