Ok, that’s probably the most stupid question you’ve ever received but I’ve always been really curious about this. So, in art is really common female paintings with naked or half naked bodies and I’ve always wondered how, in the 1800’s or earlier people used to deal with that. I’m pretty sure that sounds ridiculous but I HAD to ask this hshshajahs thanks anyway, love your blog keep it up!! (english isn’t my first language so I apologize for any mistake)

This isn’t a stupid question at all! (And your English is great btw). With nudity and art, there has always been some really weird rules as to what makes the art appropriate, or “indecent.” During the Victorian age, sexuality and nudity were filled with contradictions. With Western art, especially during the Victorian ages, they had some pretty strict rules. Interestingly, places like Japan, however, were pretty comfortable with nudity in art because of their communal bath houses (so it’s seen a lot during the ukiyo-e movement, there’s actually some, uh, pretty kinky stuff from that).

The basics with the Western side of things is that if it’s portraying an ideal, religious or mythological, it’s pretty much a-ok. While a lot of change was happening in the 1800′s, especially in terms of art (Romanticism and abstraction for two examples), they still had rules in art and if anyone broke these, then it could cause quite the scandal. It created a bit of a war between “high art” and “low art.” A large part of this is due to class distinction. For example,

Olympia, 1863, by Édouard Manet (1832–1883).

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This painting is beautiful, and is modeled after Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538). The reason this painting cause such a stir in society was not because of its nudity, but because of the person the woman represents. There are hints in the painting that she is a prostitute, and from the gaze of the woman – looking directly at the viewer – she is not ashamed of her sexual independence.

Another example, with an earlier painting, is La maja desnuda, painted by Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

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Goya was accused of moral depravity because of this painting, and a replica was later painted with the subject fully clothed. The reason Goya was put on trial was not because of the nudity, but the implications that this is not a mythological woman, but a daring subject.

What was considered “appropriate” included a number of ideas such as a reclining nude: a more vulnerable looking woman meant a more modest woman. That’s why the women in the above paintings are so scandalous. In France, a tasteful female body in art represented equality, something fought for in the Revolution. In England, they wanted to represent English ideals and proud stories, so paintings like Edwin Landseer’s ‘Lady Godiva’s Prayer,’ 1865, were admired. Godiva was a noble woman with a fascinating story, so she was acceptable.

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As the acceptance and esteem for classical antiquity in art grew more and more, the admiration for nudity in art did too. This is clear with the Classical revival, Pre-Raphaelites, and other movements. Nude figures began to represent the ideal beauty in art. The exceptions of using mythological and allegorical context for acceptable art, Orientalism was used. They didn’t depict Western culture, so they worked with different rules (which I won’t go into now.) 

The idea of erotic elements in art challenged the strict Victorian traditions and behaviour. It took a lot of eccentric artists to change the views of society. This is a pretty large subject matter and definitely something I find difficult to cover, but I hope this small bit of information helps in understanding it. It seems there was a tiny line between high art and the obscene when it came to nudity in art.