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Nude: The Unclothed Form in Western Art

Weekend All-Day Lecture/Seminar

Saturday, November 5, 2022 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Code: 1M2229
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This online program is presented on Zoom.
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Materials for this program

  1. Handout

Grande Odalisque by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1814

Often depicted without clothing, the human figure was one of the principal subjects for visual artists in the Western world from prehistory to 1900. Even today, despite a longtime focus on abstraction, nudes remain a surprisingly popular—and often controversial—part of many artists’ oeuvres.

In a richly illustrated seminar art historian Nancy G. Heller surveys a carefully curated selection of nudes by major European painters including Michelangelo, Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Édouard Manet, as well as significant Americans from John Vanderlyn and Hiram Powers to Thomas Hart Benton and Alice Neel.  She explores what differences, if any, exist between nudes painted by male and female artists and how male and female subjects are depicted by artists of both genders.

Heller is a professor emerita of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

9:30–10:45 a.m.  Naked vs. Nude

What’s the difference, and why is the former so often distressing, while the latter is generally not? Inspired by Sir Kenneth Clark’s classic book on the subject, Heller considers the philosophical, political, and aesthetic aspects of this distinction. Artworks discussed include Michelangelo’s Adam, interpretations of the Biblical figures Susanna and Bathsheba by Rembrandt and Gentileschi, and several nude self-portraits.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  Why Are These Figures Nude?

Some humanoids (notably gods and goddesses, as in the myriad depictions of Venus from Phidias through Botticelli, and many allegorical figures) have no reason to wear clothing, so their nudity in art is unremarkable. In contrast, unclothed figures painted to look like specific, contemporary individuals (as in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1863 or Benton’s Persephone from 1939) have proved unsettling to viewers.

12:15–1:15 p.m.  Break

1:15–2:30 p.m.  Are All Nudes Erotic?

The subject of eroticism in visual art is complicated. In exploring the topic, Heller considers a wide variety of nude images from Rodin’s figures of elderly subjects, to Alice Neel’s studies of pregnant women, and the voluptuous female figures for which Rubens is justly famous.

2:45–4 p.m.  Nontraditional Approaches to the Nude

Certain artists—notably Georgia O’Keeffe, and Judy Chicago—resolutely denied that their work contained references to the nude female form. Heller examines their works to help participants reach their own conclusions and compares them with more recent nude images by important African American artists Faith Ringgold, Barkley Hendricks, Diane Edison, and Renée Cox.

World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit*

Patron Information

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*Enrolled participants in the World Art History Certificate Program receive 1 elective credit. Not yet enrolled? Learn about the program, its benefits, and how to register here.