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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Does the Female Nude Really Dominate Art History?

Recently I was having a discussion with a very close friend about why Western Art has become a politically incorrect area of focus.  "Well it is true that there have been a disproportionate number of female nudes in art history." she said, which I accepted, assuming she was probably right.  But later that night I tested the hypothesis.
Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-23, National Gallery, London 176 x 191 cm

Yes, I know that one isolated sample is not conclusive, but my business is painting not statistics.  I just thought you might want to know the results of my own experiment.

I began with the first page of H.W. Janson's History of Art, probably the most referenced art historical source, counting every clearly distinguishable nude male torso and female torso, excluding babies.

Out of 361 torsos distinguishable to me as male or female, here is what I found:

Nude male torsos:  240
Nude female torsos:  121

That's almost twice as many males as females.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Le Grande Odalisque. 1814. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.
In both genders an effort was usually made to hide or obscure the loins in frontal poses, in fact more than I supposed.  There were a few exceptions in which no attempt was made which I also numbered:

Males:  51
Females:  18

A scene from Genesis on the Sistine Ceiling fresoes by Michelangelo, 1508-1512
Only two images in the book could be definitively classified as a"female nude" in subject matter.  How many female nudes can the average person without an art degree even recall by name?  So where does the notion come from that Art History is so obsessed with the female nude?  I have my own opinions, but they are less interesting to me than the fact that the assumption appears to be untrue. Maybe if I picked another book I'd find different results, but...I don't have time!  I expect a survey of modern art would yield different results considering the likes of Picasso, Gaugin, Modigliani, and Matisse.


  1. Very in interesting survey Steve. I think I will, in good scientific fashion, duplicate your research. (Although it will have to wait a week or so).....

  2. My guess is that the female nudes confront us with "erotic" notions, whereas Classical male nudes evoke "idealism" in context. I think if you divided them up across the timeline, then you will also see another set of results occur.

  3. I expect a survey of modern art would yield different results considering the likes of Picasso, Gaugin, Modigliani, and Matisse. In fact I will say that in the post.

  4. at that point "the gaze" becomes the topic. the context of the nude becomes a theme of presentation... not the nude itself. Velasquez's Venus at her Mirror a good starting point, to Manet's Luncheon, the Olympia's, Gerome... Picasso's Artist and Models. To isolate "the Nude" as a topic, is to overlook it's "use". Classical Greek use of the nude is to present the Ideal (atheletic and warrior)-- the mathematic. As the female form emerges as subject, the erotic, sensual themes begin to be explored... the bi-products of Romanticism, Hogarth aesthetics(?). In each case the nude is the medium of the thought. NOW we've got Vanessa Beecroft and Kiki Smith further exploring the body as art.