Trying to figure out nudity in old art
October 4, 2007 11:14 AM   Subscribe

What is the deal with this kind of half-undress in Baroque paintings?

Now that I think about it, I recall seeing a lot of paintings from the era where women are letting down their dress like this, often in mixed company. In today's context, it would almost look like the room is too hot and she's trying to cool off, and that it's no big deal to those present.

Then there's more grandiose pictures like this where it looks like clothes are getting ripped off (maybe like an erotic opera), and just odd scenes like this that look like the artist either intent on skirting taboos or fixated on painting the female body.

What is it the artists were trying to convey, especially in the non-fantasy paintings like the first one? I'm sure there were modesty taboos in that era, but I'm not understanding the whole picture. I'm also not bashing nudity.. nothing wrong with it.. just trying to understand.
posted by rolypolyman to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The nudes in all of the paintings to which you link are indeed portrayed in situations that circumvent taboos on nudity. In the first link, the artist is also particularly showing off his skill in well he can convey the texture of the gathered fabric of the drape.
posted by desuetude at 11:22 AM on October 4, 2007

Sex sells. But it sells particularly well when it's disguised as high culture.

Thus has it always been.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:25 AM on October 4, 2007

Sex sells. But it sells particularly well when it's disguised as high culture.

Why are the two mutually exclusive?
posted by xmutex at 11:26 AM on October 4, 2007

The artists wanted to convey what their patrons wanted to see. It was the chance to have something that your male friends could admire in your private gallery.
posted by JJ86 at 11:47 AM on October 4, 2007

That last one is actually a Renaissance painting of a popular theme in art and literature, The Ages of Man. The Rubens you linked is Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, so the nudity is somewhat in context. Nudes were also used to represent gods or god desses, or abstract concepts in human form, such as Truth and Time - in which case nudity was a means of representing purity, perfection, and otherworldliness. The Renaissance artists were also very much influenced by classical Greek and Roman art and frescoes, and developed a renewed interest in the human body as a perfect working machine.

This doesn't mean these images were not considered titillating or sexual; reams of scholarly papers have been written on the Meaning of the Female Nude. I'm sure you could find a bunch if you dig around.

BTW, public art had as many nudes as the art commissioned by private patrons. It's not simply an "impress your friends" thing.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:02 PM on October 4, 2007

It's the drapery, not the nudity per se, in these paintings. It's not unique to Baroque. Its origins/influences are in classical Greek sculpture. In the Renaissance the artists often did it to show off their rendering skills (see here) and to create dynamism/feeling of movement/define the body. It was popular both in the north and south. Later on, artists weren't so concerned with realism as much as they were with stylization, elaborateness. See Mannerism.

Baroque painting is *heavily* influenced by classicism. (See here.)

In any case, there's a big distinction to be made between "naked" and "nude." They're two very different things. Artemis=nude. Sabine women=naked.

It's generalizing--and actually partially wrong--to say that it's all about "sex." It's sensual, yeah, but it's not sex. Dramatic drapery is used a lot in religious imagery, for example. (Of course, when you see stuff like this painting by Andrea Mantegna, you start to wonder.)

Sorry this is so rushed.

BTW that Seven Ages of Woman painting is Northern Ren, not Baroque.
posted by cowboy_sally at 12:02 PM on October 4, 2007

Funny thing is, in the language of baroque art, that bare back isn't nearly as scandalous as those musical instruments.

Ss for nudity vs. nakedness: Bah. It would be pretty fair to assume that the painter of that Rape was paid extra for showing tits and ass in the same picture. No joke. That's what Baroque was all about, until Martin Luther and his Reformation came along and ruined it for everybody.

Lastly, that Baldung isn't baroque at all, but rather Renaissance, and is really more of a scientific illustration (stages of life) than anything else.
posted by Reggie Digest at 12:38 PM on October 4, 2007

Nudes were also used to represent gods or goddesses

And vice-versa.
posted by Reggie Digest at 12:44 PM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Reggie Digest: The Baroque comes after Luther, and in fact is inextricably linked with the Counter-Reformation.
posted by azure_swing at 1:15 PM on October 4, 2007

I would not be too quick to assume that their ideas of propriety WRT nudity were the same as ours are today.

In the current time, there is a significant difference between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to nudity on magazine covers, in public parks, etc. We really have little idea of what the sensibilities were in the 1600s.
posted by megatherium at 2:58 PM on October 4, 2007

Well, looking at that first painting I like to think that the artist was anticipating Man Ray.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 6:25 PM on October 4, 2007

Well, I'll be damned. I really did deserve that C-minus.
posted by Reggie Digest at 11:35 AM on October 5, 2007

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