The female nude has been a topic of interest and study in art for thousands of years. Over the course of history, the treatment of female nudes in art have evolved to reflect the cultural attitudes and concerns of the time. In this essay, I will chronologically compare three works of art, Venus of Urbino, Olympia and Olympia’s Boyz, that have similar content, but display different artistic concerns and styles.
Venus of Urbino, by Titian in 1538, oil on canvas, is a beautiful example of a reclining female nude portrayed through a male gaze, painted during the Venetian High Renaissance. Women were generally not allowed to apprentice under master artists, so during the Renaissance, painting was a profession largely dominated by men. This patriarchal dominance lead to a conventional approach to painting nude women, as mythological, demure, and sensual creatures such as Venus. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, sex and fertility. By portraying women in this role, men are actively playing into longstanding sexist stereotypes about women. Women are often portrayed as sexual objects, valued only for aesthetic beauty. In modern advertising, beautiful women with large breasts are used to sell unrelated goods and services. In this painting, a pale nude woman reclines in the foreground, breasts bared, her skin supple and glowing with the technique of chiaroscuro. Her dog sleeps by her feet and her maids place her gown in a wardrobe in the background. Her head is tilted to the side, resting on her hand, her eyes cast forward in a direct and suggestive gaze, seducing the viewer with her beauty. Despite her suggestive gaze, art historians believe this painting was a celebration of marriage, created for the Duke of Urbino to commemorate his wedding to Giulana Varano. The dog curled up by her feet symbolizes loyalty, while the roses clutched in her hand symbolize lasting romantic love.
Titian effectively produced a controversial image by posing Venus confidently and by replacing a mythological setting with a domestic interior. By doing so, he enhanced her accessibility and intensity. In comparison, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus,
painted earlier in the 1480’s, shows a nude Venus in an awkward contrapposto stance, attempting to cover her nudity with her hand and hair. Venus of Urbino is comfortably nude bearing her breasts, perhaps playing into its intentional purpose, to be viewed for her husband’s pleasure. Titian’s painting later caused writer Mark Twain to pen an enraged assessment of the painting on display at the Uffizi, “--the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses- Titian’s Venus.” Indeed, some men truly cannot handle the frank beauty she possesses, and rage against baser inclinations without appreciating the beauty of the human body. It is debated whether Titian intended for his painting to be dubbed “Venus” at all, it could be art historians attempt at political correctness, clothing this nude woman with a false narrative. This painting is surely one of my all-time favorites from the High Renaissance due to its controversy and aesthetic beauty!
Edouard Manet responded to Titian’s Venus of Urbino with his painting, Olympia, oil on canvas, in 1863. This painting is considered more controversial than Titian’s version mainly because it depicts a sex worker, Olympia, greeting a client. The technique Manet used to paint Olympia is less academically refined compared to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Manet used a looser brushwork technique to render the modern and controversial scene. Without the use of chiaroscuro, Manet’s figures appear flat as compared to the supple figure of Venus by Titian. Olympia lays on her side, on a white bed, with a black cat at her feet, replacing Titian’s loyal dog with a symbol for sex workers and women. Her gaze can also be considered as direct and confrontational, which rejects the demure tropes reserved for women painted in the nude at the time and in art history. The background is dark, and less meticulously rendered than Titian’s background, creating more emphasis on Olympia and her maid. There is stark contrast between the fair complexion of Olympia and her darker-skinned maid, perhaps fetishizing Olympia’s ghostly ivory skin. Her maid appears much closer in the foreground compared to the two maids in the background of Venus of Urbino. The African maid, Laure, presents flowers to Olympia, an ironic symbol of female purity. Laure is another source of racially charged controversy, as she commands just as much space as her white counterpart but is largely ignored in art history. This raises historic issues of the marginalization and invisibility of black women. At the time, the French abolition of territorial slavery was fairly recent, so including an African woman may have upset racist members of French Society. Manet considered himself a realist, yet his honest interpretations were modern and radical which lead art historians to consider him the father of Impressionist style. This frank depiction of “fringe” members of Parisian society shocked the public at the time so much, that the painting had to be hung very high on display to avoid vandalism. I believe by depicting a sex worker, with an African woman, Manet told the truth of society and rejected academic painting norms by his technique and use of a modern setting. Men were uncomfortable with his “impolite” and provocative painting because they did not want to expose their own secrets or interests in the opposite sex.
Finally, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001 by Jamaican-American artist, Renee Cox is a more recent contribution to the evolution of the female nude. This work is an archival digital c-print mounted on aluminum. Photography is a deliberate and valuable medium of choice for many artists of African descent. Before the photograph, European ethnographers used their drawings to create exaggerated images of ethnic groups that validated their racial stereotypes, like Sartjee the Hottentot Venus, etching by Christopher Crupper Rumford in 1811. With the use of photography, African artists were able to reclaim their identity and convey faithful representations of their experience. The importance of photography remains vital to exposing racial inequalities and experiences today, in many cases like George Floyd in 2020. African women are especially vulnerable, constantly suppressed in society and art history due to racism. This piece by Renee Cox is both fascinating and controversial because Cox uses her own nude body, and her two sons to pose for this image based on Manet’s Olympia. Cox all at once, addresses the issues of identity, women in history, and race. She is reclaiming her experience as a black woman and affirming her status as equal and worthy. By using herself and her family to update classical works of art she adds a level of intimacy and vulnerability to her work. Her photo appropriates the pose and composition of Olympia by Manet, sparking relevant debate about the absence of African women in classical art history. She challenges misogynistic views about women by injecting herself in place of a white sex worker. African American women are often erased, underrepresented, exploited, over-sexualized or used as accessories for the classical or mythological white woman. Cox intended on reenacting Manet’s work by highlighting an empowered black woman, free from the derogatory interpretations of Olympia as a sex worker. By replacing the African maid in Manet’s painting with her bi-racial sons, she comments on the historic exchanges that persist between Europe and Africa and suggests black sexuality is intertwined with white sexuality. She also suggests by her posture that sexuality and nudity are not intrinsically shameful. In many African tribes, people live wearing little to no clothes, therefore nudity from an African perspective is less risqué than from a western perspective. She portrays herself as an African Queen, by placing herself in the center, on a couch, with her sons as her protectors standing close behind her. The background is completely dark, enhancing the contrast and placing more attention on Cox’s body and recreated scene. The fabrics she chose are distinctly African, along with her beaded jewelry, and the head wraps and weapons held by her two sons. Cox’s artwork shows a deeply personal, honest and rich knowledge base of African history and experience. Olympia’s Boyz is an important re-imagination of classical artwork with racial equality and identity as a focal point.
My original artwork continues to explore and celebrate the female body from my unique perspective using natural henna. I create #feministhenna highlighting topics of concern: body autonomy, acceptance, sexuality, censorship and personal safety amongst other important feminist issues. The goal of my work is to inform, empower women, and combat sexism that perceives women as inherently sexual. Sexuality is also not something women should be ashamed or fearful of, I believe every woman should adopt a prepared and informed mindset to take control of their sexual health and pursuits. Although many women are not afforded the right to choose. We must work to change the patriarchal structure of society that allows women to be controlled or mistreated.
Unfortunately, women and girls are still being mutilated, murdered and abused in societies across the world regardless of their attire or status in devastating numbers. In traditionally henna-using cultures, women are especially vulnerable to violence or abuse. In Turkey, shockingly high Femicide rates continue to rise sparking global outrage and protest. In Bangladesh, India and Pakistan acid attacks continue to persist where acid remains inexpensive and accessible. In Africa, the Middle East and Asia more than 200 million women alive today have been cut in countries where female genital mutilation is still practiced. In the United States domestic violence is reaching all-time highs due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 29% of women (compared to 10% of men) have experienced rape, violence or stalking according the the National Domestic Violence Hotline. We must all work together to protect and foster respect for women across the globe.
Thank you for reading, please reach out to me personally or comment your thoughts!
Flatyz, et al. “How Scandal Helped Shape Édouard Manet's 'Olympia' into a Modern Masterpiece.” My Modern Met, 19 Aug. 2019, mymodernmet.com/edouard-manet-olympia/.
Oxford University Press. “Photo Essay - African American Women and Photography.” Oxford African American Studies Center, 2020, oxfordaasc.com/page/photo-essay-african-american-women-and-photography.
Stephens, Jiesha. “Renee Cox's New History.” USFCAM, 3 Sept. 2015, usfcam.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/renee-coxs-new-history/.
Zucker , Steven, and Beth Harris. “Titian, Venus of Urbino (Video).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, 2012, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/renaissance-art-europe-ap/v/titian-venus-of-urbino-1538.