Overview Edit

The general meaning of nude is a naked human figure or a human figure not wearing any clothes. However, the word “nude” is used mostly when the naked human figure is a subject of a painting, sculpture, or photograph when there is a human gaze on them.  

Definition and History Edit

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 The definition of nude as an adjective is naked. The definition of nude as a noun is a naked human figure usually as a subject of a photograph, painting, sculpture, etc. John Berger in Part 2 of his 4-part video series titled Ways of Seeing makes the distinction between the meaning of the words “naked” and “nude.” As Berger says, “To be naked, is to be one’s self. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for one’s self.” This means that just because a body is naked, it does not mean that it is a nude. For a naked body to be a nude, it must be objectified and for the pleasure of the viewer only.

This can be seen in the history of the nude. The nude figure has been in art since the Ancient times. In Ancient Greece, sculptures of naked male figures were made. The mainstay of Archaic Greek sculpture was the kouros, a large standing figure of a male nude. An example of this is Polykleitos' Diadumenos (shown right).


These sculptures associated the male body with athletic power and moral excellence. While male nudes were depicted this way, the attitude toward the female nude was and is completely different. In Ancient Greece, Greeks preferred to see the female body clothed because the female body was associated with the divinity of procreation. While men had been naked for 350 years in Greek sculpture, the first sculpture of a female nude was a statue of a naked Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex, by Praxiteles around 330 BC. The placement of Aphrodite’s hands teased the viewer. One hand was on her bath robe by her side and the other hand covering her genitalia. This statue gathered many admirers. It is said that a sailor left an inappropriate stain on the statue’s thigh while trying to have sex with the soldier.

This difference between the male and female nude can be seen throughout history. While the male nude is shown as powerful, the female nude is shown sexually and for the viewer’s pleasure. Another example of this is in the female nude paintings of the Renaissance. May times, whenever there is a female nude in a painting, she is looking out, as if looking at the viewer of the painting. If not looking out, she is forming her body in a way that is uncomfortable for her, but sexually pleasing for the viewer. She is never shown dancing, but always in a languid position such as lying down to show that they are there to “feed an appetite. Not to have any of their own”(Berger).  There is no hair on the woman’s body because hair is associated with passion and sexual power. This must be minimized for the woman because the sexual power must be in the control of the male viewer, not the woman. If there is a male subject involved, he is clothed or the female is not looking at him, but rather outward to the spectator. 

Examples Edit

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As mentioned before, there are many examples of this in history. Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian shows a female nude lying down. Her eyes are looking outward as if looking at the viewer and her hand is covering her genitalia. She has no pubic hair, which shows as mentioned earlier, that she is not in control of her sexual power.


Examples of the female nude can also be seen today. One of the most recent and controversial sets of female nude photos was of Kim Kardashian’s photos in Paper Magazine. Although she may be smiling, unlike the female subjects in the Renaissance paintings, her eyes are looking outward to the viewer. She has no pubic hair and the main focus of the photos are her breasts, buttocks, and vagina. 

Critical Conversation Edit

John Berger, as mentioned before, says “To be naked, is to be one’s self. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for one’s self,” meaning that to be nude, a naked body must be objectified and for the pleasure of the viewer.

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This argument can be supported by Lord Kenneth Clark’s book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1951). In Chapter 1, “The Naked and the Nude,” he says “No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.” This shows that he also believes that the nude is there for the spectator and arouses an erotic feeling in them. If the nude does not do this, then it is bad art. However, unlike John Berger’s negative tone of the objectification of the female nude, Clark delights in it saying that “The nude gain its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men and may be worshiped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.”

Rosemary Betterton, in her article titled “How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon,” goes into detail about a “painting by Ingres from the early nineteenth century, which is representative of the ‘classic’ tradition of the nude” (5). She says, “The naked woman is shown reclining, and although her body is turned away from the viewer, the glimpse of her breast and the expanse of her  

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buttocks and thighs emphasize her sexual availability. Her glance too invites the gaze, so that the fiction of her complicity with the viewer’s look can be maintained… Finally, the treatment of the body itself as smooth, fleshy and boneless reinforces the passivity and languor of the pose… Women’s sexuality is represented as exotic and at the same time firmly in male possession” (5). While this is the male gaze, she goes onto talk about the female gaze on the female nude. She explains that images of women are attractive to women because women “are subject to socialization. We inhabit a patriarchal culture in which we, no less than men, are socialized into the acceptance of women’s bodies as desirable and accessible. We are bombarded with images of style, glamour and seduction through magazines, adverts, cinema and television. No wonder these images become objects of fantasy and desire for us, too” (8). Her second explanation is that “women’s pleasure draws upon the concept of narcissism. If the male look is characterized by voyeurism, observing and taking pleasure at a distance, the female look, it is claimed, is narcissistic, finding pleasure in closeness, in reflection and in identification with an image.” This means that women are in love with their own desirability. However, even this desirability depends on how others receive it. Betterton quotes Rosalind Coward and says that “because desirability has been elevated to being the crucial reason for sexual relations, it sometimes appears to women that the whole possibility of being loved and comforted hangs on how their appearance will be received” (Coward, 1984:78).  

Although there are many scholars talking about the female nude, they all come down to the conclusion that the female nude is for the male gaze and is often sexually objectified. 

Keywords Edit

John Berger Ways of Seeing Part 2


Visual Culture

Visual Rhetoric


Citations Edit

Berger, John. "Ways of Seeing , Episode 2 (1972)." YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Betterton, Rosemary. "How Do Women Look? The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon." Feminist Review 19.1 (1985): 3-24. JSTOR. Web.

Clark, Kenneth. The Nude; a Study in Ideal Form. New York: Pantheon, 1951. Print.

"Kenneth Clark." - Wikiquote. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

"La Maja Desnuda." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

"Nude(art)." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Scott, Michael. "The Scandal of Praxiteles' Aphrodite." Historyextra. N.p., 1 Nov. 2010. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

"Top 20 Female Nudes." Female Nudes in Art History. Encyclopedia of Art, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.