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The female gaze: How women artists redrew the female nude

The female gaze: How women artists redrew the female nude

In defiance of the male gaze, these groundbreaking women artists have reclaimed the female nude and given it a new, rebellious authenticity 

Consider which paintings spring to mind when thinking about female nudes by great artists. These might include Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1484-86, Edouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, or Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.

What these paintings have in common is the male gaze or, simply put, they are painted by men. The result over history is a masculine take on naked women (mostly pure or erotic) and their choice of models (mostly young and unblemished).

Until recently, the likelihood of women painting female nudes has been slight. Women were discouraged, if not barred, from painting the naked body until the well into the mid-20th century.

But some pushed the boundaries even as far back as the Baroque, and their work brings new perspectives to the genre.

Lavinia Fontana

Minerva Dressing, first ever female nude painted by woman artist Lavinia FortunaLavina Fortuna, Minerva Dressing, 1613

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) was apparently the first woman artist to paint nudes. Daughter of Prospero Fontana, who was a teacher at the School of Bologna, she is best known as a Mannerist and portrait painter.

Such was her earning power that her husband took over raising their eleven children.

"​​​​​​​Lavinia Fontana was apparently the first woman artist to paint nudes"

Minerva Dressing, 1613, can appear a modest nude to the contemporary viewer as the Greek goddess poses half-turned, her frontal nudity hidden.

It's also a disproportionate nude, receiving criticism that she “imagined” the naked body (and that it was too rude to see a real one). Regardless, it is a credit to Fontana’s standing that she kicked the whole thing off.

Artemisia Gentileschi

The Allegory of Inclination, female nude drawn by Artemisia GentileschiArtemisia Gentileschi, Allegory of Inclination, 1616

Breaking news is that a long-censored, nude painting by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654) is being restored in Florence.

Dated 1616, the Allegory of Inclination is a life-sized figure, draped in a gossamer shawl, which was added some 70 years later in the name of modesty.

The nude is believed to be a self-portrait of the artist at age 22. In this respect it is a testimony to Gentileschi’s renowned fortitude.

Painted only a few years after the trial of her rapist, Agostino Tassi, Artemisia Gentileschi was publicly rejecting the common expectation of shame in her body.

Gentileschi also painted other nudes. Susannah and the Elders, 1610, depicts a young woman being harangued by older men as she bathes. The lascivious old guys are being called out by the artist in no uncertain terms.

Gwen John

Nude Girl painted by Gwen JohnGwen John, Nude Girl, 1909-10

Nude Girl, 1909-10, by British artist Gwen John (1876-1939) is a study of Fenella Lovell, a popular artist’s model.

Gwen John was Augustus John’s sister and Rodin’s lover. She studied under Whistler and applied his grey tones in this rather monotone study.

In Nude Girl, Lovell looks at John with some defiance, unsurprisingly given they disliked each other. Perhaps John’s chance to paint a nude as a female artist was so limited, she just took what was available? She certainly painted the truth.

Irma Stern

Seated Nude painted by Irma SternIrma Stern, Seated Nude, 1930

South African artist Irma Stern (1894-1966) painted several nudes, including Seated Nude, 1930.

Stern trained with the German Expressionists. During her time in Europe, she painted women bathing naked on the French Riviera.

When she returned to South Africa, she continued to paint black women and white women in strong, casual poses, their representation a reflection on her stance as an early feminist.

Frida Kahlo

Two Nudes In A Forest by Frida KahloFrida Kahlo, Two Nudes In A Forest, 1939

Two Nudes in the Forest, 1939, by Frida Kahlo is an intimate portrait of two naked women lounging together. Kahlo had female lovers as well as male. This painting includes her lover Dolores del Rio, a Mexican film star.

"This painting includes Frida Kahlo's lover Dolores del Rio, a Mexican film star"

In the background is a small monkey, a symbol of sin. However, the women look serene as if comforting each other. So perhaps it’s ironic?

Kahlo didn’t flinch from forbidden subjects. In her self-portrait Henry Ford Hospital, 1932, she paints herself naked and bleeding after a miscarriage.

Mickalene Thomas

A Little Taste Outside Of Love painted by Mickalene ThomasMickalene Thomas, A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007

Mickalene Thomas is a contemporary African American artist repositioning black women as central in art.

In A Little Taste Outside of Love, 2007, Thomas’s nude usurps the maidservant in Renaissance art, taking centre stage.

Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin And Then You Left MeTracey Emin, And Then You Left Me, 2008

Tracey Emin’s raw, personal, nude drawings of abandonment and mistreatment are also of note. And Then You Left Me, 2008, is a case in point.

Käthe Kollwitz

Kathe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead ChildKäthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child, 1903

A pencil drawing by Käthe Kollwitz, Woman with Dead Child, 1903, brings a traumatising subject to paper—that of losing a child.

Similarly, Death & Woman, 1910, is a powerful depiction of a naked, dead woman with a clinging child in the clutches of a skeleton.

Indeed, Käthe Kollwitz was not an artist to shy away from taboo subjects. In Love Scene I, 1909, a naked woman engages in sex, showing the woman as keenly involved as her lover.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-portrait as a Standing Nude with HatPaula Modersohn-Becker, Mother With Child On Her Arm, Nude II, 1906

Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self Portrait As A Standing Nude With Hat, 1906, is in the style of northern Renaissance painters like Albrecht Durer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, in which the model carries fruit and wears a majestic headdress.

In this way, the artist is showing she expects to be taken seriously.

Mother With Child On Her Arm, Nude II, 1906, also brings fruit into the composition with a fecund mother holding a chubby baby. Pleased with her maternity, her hand caresses her stomach.

Carolee Schneemann

Carolee Schneemann, “Meat Joy”Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy, 1964

Carolee Schneemann began as an Abstract Expressionist. By the 1960s she launched as a performance artist working with Merce Cunningham.

Her work was challenging, bringing menstruation and sexuality into the discourse.

"I do not show my naked body! I am being my body"

Her key subject was her naked self (Meat Joy, November 16-18, 1964, Judson Dance Theatre; Up To And Including Her Limits, June 10, 1976, Studiogalerie, Berlin).

Schneemann spelt it out: “I do not show my naked body! I am being my body.”

In London galleries now

There is also a chance to see some nudes by women artists in current exhibitions in London.

Both Kathe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker are part of Making Modernism at the Royal Academy, until February 23, 2023.

And the second wave feminist Carolee Schneemann’s solo exhibition Body Politics is at the Barbican gallery until January 8, 2023.

Some of these female nudes are just groundbreaking.

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