Sexuality in Art

First Things First...

The topic of sexuality in art history can be approached in a variety of ways but perhaps the most valuable one (in terms of a foundational topic for a survey art history lecture) is the convention of female nudity in art. Tracing this convention through the history of art will enable you to cover issues of sexuality, gender, and power with your class. Additionally, you can spend time looking at the ways in which modern and contemporary artists have responded to the trope of female nudity in order to break with past conventions, and the ways in which feminist and queer artists and artists of color have developed new approaches to this tradition from a position of marginality.


  1.  The history of the nude in Western art has typically been a recurring dialogue with classical art—most notably in the Renaissance and the Neoclassical periods. Although it is often a reference to this historical period, the representation of the nude body in art should not be considered autonomous from the social and sexual relations of its contemporaneous society in any period.
  2.  The development of a tradition of female nudity in art is related to the concept of objectification.
    3.  Any analysis of nudity in art should entail a consideration of the dynamics of “looking” and questions such as: Who is the intended audience? How does the nude subject engage the presumed viewer? What is the relationship between the artist and model, and the artist and patron?
  3.  We can study art to learn about different aspects of sex in society—ideas about fertility, morality, beauty standards, gender ideals, and national identity.
  4. Especially since the feminist art movement, artists—namely women and people of color—have devised new ways to use art for gender, sex, and race for their own self-determination.

The examples outlined here are selective and many other relevant artists/artworks can be chosen to discuss the themes in this lecture, based on your own syllabus. The first part of the lecture will review the tradition of female nude in western art history, and introduce concepts of objectification and the gaze. Students will become familiar with the influential scholarship of John Berger, Laura Mulvey, and bell hooks to gain skills for analyzing the gender and racialized constructions of sexuality.

Background Readings

Erich Heckel, Crystal Day, 1913, oil on canvas.

  • John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Penguin 1972).
  • Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power.” Arts Magazine (vol. 64 no. 5, January 1990): 44-63.
  • Whitney Davis, “Founding the Closet: Sexuality and the Creation of Art History.” Art Documentation 11 no. 4 (Winter 1992): 171-175.
  • Carol Duncan, “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting” Artforum (December 1973), 30-39. (
  • Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction (Vintage, Reissue Edition 1990).
  • Sander Gilman, Sexuality: An Illustrated History (Echo Books + Media, Reprint, 2014).
  • bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation, 1992, reprint edition (New York and London: Routledge, 2015).
  • Amy K. Levin, Gender, Sexuality and Museums: A Routledge Reader (2010).
  • Alyce Mahon, Eroticism and Art (Oxford History of Art, 2007).
  • Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality (1992, Routledge).
  • Edward-Lilly Smith, Sexuality in Western Art. (1991, Thames and Hudson).
  • Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (1983, University of Chicago Press, 2nd edition, 1997).

Online resources:

Heilbrunn Timelines on the History of Art (Sex

Content Suggestions

List of Artworks:

  • Praxiteles, Knidian Aphrodite, Roman copy after the original bronze of 4th century BCE
  • Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, c. 1484-1486
  • Titian, “Venus” of Urbino, c. 1538
  • Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grand Odalisque, 1814
  • Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
  • Erich Heckel, Crystal Day, 1913
  • Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907
  • Yasumasa Morimura, Portrait (Futago), 1988
  • Jan Banning, Danae Olympia, from National Identities series, 2012
  • Alice Neel, Pregnant Maria, 1964
  • Joan Semmel, Intimacy-Autonomy, 1974
  • Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Golub Reclining, 1971
  • Erin M. Riley, from Nudes series, c. 2013
  • Mickelane Thomas, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires, 2010


  • Venus pudica – a term used to describe a classical figural pose in Western art. In this, an unclothed female (either standing or reclining) keeps one hand covering herself. The resultant pose is somewhat asymmetrical and often serves to draw one’s eye to the very spot being hidden. (via
  • objectification – this term is often used in a general way to describe an emphasis on physical beauty and/or a dismissal of the objectified person’s full personality and attributes. Feminists have critiqued the process by which objectification denies the humanity of the “object,” for example images that treat women as sexual objects. A sex object may seem to exist only for the viewer’s gratification, without regard to any other mental, physical, or spiritual aspect of the person. (via
  • nudity / nakedness – this distinction was theorized by the art historian Kenneth Clark as a binary whereby nudity refers to a culturally transcendent and virtuous depiction of an unclothed body, while nakedness refers to an exposed, vulnerable, and embarrassing image of an unclothed body. In the convention of the reclining female nude in western art history, women are considered “nude” and thus morally suitable subjects of fine art.
  • male gaze – the male gaze is a concept coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey. It refers to the way visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer and describes a tendency in visual culture to depict the world and women from a masculine point of view (via
  • odalisque – representations of a female slave or concubine in a harem, especially within the context of Orientalism as it developed among western artists such as Ingres and Delacroix in the nineteenth century.
  • Orientalism – a concept developed by the cultural critic Edward W. Said. It refers to a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates, and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S.. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. (via
  • racial fetishism – involves fetishizing a person or culture belonging to a race or ethnic group that is not one’s own. Therefore it involves racial/ethnic stereotyping and objectifying bodies and cultural practices that are stereotyped. In the history of art, racial fetishism is related to the concept of primitivism, a European art practice of borrowing visual forms from non-Western or prehistoric peoples, a practice central to the development of modern art.
    • (via and


Sexuality has been a recurrent subject in the history of art almost since the beginning of known representations. Nearly every civilization has created sexually explicit imagery, often in the context of spirituality or rituals concerning fertility, to express cultural ideals of beauty and virtue, or in the case of pornography, for the express purpose of viewers’ arousal.

Typical representations of the female nude in the European artistic tradition were made by male artists, who put woman on display for the pleasure of a presumed male spectator. The artist transforms the female naked body to become nude insofar as it is seen as an erotic object offered to the man’s gaze and his imaginary knowledge. Therefore, as an object of contemplation that uses nudity to reference mythological or biblical themes, the nude is elevated as a legitimate subject of art. The terms of that offering are subject to conventions calculated to flatter the male viewer and to stimulate his fantasy of sexual domination. Thus, as John Berger has observed, “almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal—either literally or metaphorically—because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it” (1972: 56). The convention of omitting female body hair, Berger further notes, contributes to the representation of female submission by eliminating the hint of passion and physical desire suggested by hairy growth. The nude, like the prostitute, is an erotic commodity. Her nakedness is valuable not for its individuality, but for its ability to conform and appeal to general male fantasies—erasing any potentially threatening signs of woman’s desiring subjectivity. In what follows, we will examine the convention of female nudity established in ancient Greece, and its impact on subsequent art history.

Artists in ancient Greece developed focused and distinctive ideals of human beauty and architectural design that continue to exert a profound influence today. Referring to an artwork as “classical” associates it with this period in ancient Greece (from the beginning of the fifth century BCE to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE), an era of unprecedented political and cultural achievement.

Just as Greek architects defined and followed a set of standards for ideal temple design that continue to influence design today, Greek sculptors sought an ideal for representing the human body that became the standard for subsequent representations of the figure. Studying actual human bodies and selecting attributes they considered most desirable—such as symmetrical facial features, smooth skin, and particular body proportions—sculptors combined them into a single ideal of physical perfection.

In ancient Greece, athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the human body, particularly the male. The athletes in these contests competed in the nude, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity. Thus, the Greeks associated the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence—values demonstrated in their male nude sculpture. The Greek attitude contrasts remarkably with attitudes prevalent in other parts of the ancient world, where undress was typically associated with disgrace and defeat.

The ancestry of the female nude in ancient Greece is distinct from the male. Where the latter originates in the perfect human athlete, the former embodies the divinity of procreation. Naked female figures such as Woman of Willendorf appear in very early prehistoric art, and similar images represent fertility deities as the Near Eastern Ishtar. The Greek goddess Aphrodite belongs to this family, and she too was imagined as life-giving, proud, and seductive. In the mid-fourth century BCE, the sculptor Praxiteles made a naked Aphrodite, called the Knidian Aphrodite, which established a new tradition for the female nude. Lacking the bulbous and exaggerated forms of Near Eastern fertility figures, the Knidian Aphrodite, like Greek male athletic statues, had idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios. In addition, her pose, with head turned to the side and one hand covering her body, seemed to present the goddess surprised in her bath. As such, the nude contained narrative and erotic possibilities. The position of the goddess’ hands could have been meant to show modesty or desire to shield the viewer from a full view of her sex organs (breasts and genitalia). Although the Knidian statue was not preserved, its impact survives in the numerous replicas and variants of it that exist. Such images of Venus (the Latin name of Aphrodite as she appears in Roman art) adorned houses, bath buildings, and tombs as well as temples and outdoor sanctuaries.

The entrenched homoeroticism of ancient Greek society relates to the pre-eminence of the heroic male nude. Comparing male and female depictions in their art, a double standard is evident in large, free standing statuary developed in the Archaic period: female kore (plural, kourai) statues were clothed, whereby male kouros (plural, kouroi) statues were nude.  In addition, the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles created the Aphrodite of Knidios, and established a convention known as the “Venus pudica” to address the status of female nudity as indecorous. This term describes a classical figural pose in Western art. In this, an unclothed female (either standing or reclining) keeps one hand covering her private parts. The resultant pose seems modest but is somewhat asymmetrical, and often serves to draw one’s eye to the very spot being hidden. The double standard between male and female nudity in art persisted from Greco-Roman sculpture right up to modern times, normative in later Western art.

After the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity in the fourth century CE, the portrayal of nudes in western art declined because the values and imperatives of patrons and artists changed. In ancient Greece and Rome, paganism and a culture of public nudity and athleticism led to the depiction of naked divinities and ideal nudes as images of civic virtue. In Christian societies, patrons and artists valued chastity and celibacy, which prevented depictions of unclothed bodies in art. For example, such figures are rare in medieval art (approximately 500-1300 CE). When nudity did appear, it occurred in the context of religious art and was used to convey ideas of shame, such as in scenes depicting the biblical story of Adam and Eve. They were the first man and women to discover their nakedness in the Garden of Eden due to sin, and consequently, suffer shame and punishment. Just as nudity was used to convey civic ideals in the classical art of Greece and Rome, in medieval art nudes were used as teaching moments about the dangers of sin.

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is an important painting that marks the shift from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, interest in mythological subjects increased and artists found new ways to depict nude figures (male and female) in art by reviving classical nudity. In Birth of Venus the central goddess of love is nude and represents the Renaissance idea of “divine love,” rather than evoking any religious meaning. She takes the form of a nude Venus based on the “Venus pudica” that is derived from Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite. Appearing to be born out of sea foam, she averts her eyes from our gaze and hovers on a scallop shell. Her hands and hair are carefully arranged to hide her sexuality, but again, this posture draws attention to it instead. Her grace and beauty are amplified by the serene composition and the presence of Zephyr (with his love, the nymph Chloris), who accompanied Venus to her earthly home, and a person on the right who greets her with an embroidered garment and flowers.

If Boticelli’s Venus marked a decisive shift away from the medieval disdain for the female nude in art, other Italian artists from the sixteenth century, such as the Venetian painter Titian, began depicting female nudes in an even bolder manner. Here we see a new image of Venus, as a recumbent figure, lying naked in a domestic interior. As John Berger has pointed out, most nudes in the history of European art are in this reclining pose. Just as Michelangelo drew upon the bodily conventions of classical art but updated his subject for his own time, so too did Titian with the female nude. Although it reflects the proportions of antique statuary, Titian’s Venus of Urbino pays less attention to ideal proportions of geometry than to the seductive warmth of the subject’s feminine body. During the sixteenth century, such paintings of reclining women were commissioned and displayed within wealthy court circles by and for male patrons. This painting, for instance, was made for the Duke of Urbino. Its subject is a beautiful woman who is lying on a bed, modestly yet provocatively covering her body.

Art historian Rona Goffen has argued that the subject of this painting has more to do with marriage than with seductiveness or mythology. Whereas original interpretations suggested that the languid pose of this Venus suggested her status as a Venetian courtesan, multiple matrimonial references (namely, the wedding chests in the background, the myrtle and roses held by the central figure, and the dog sleeping at her feet), seem to indicate that this painting may have been commissioned in association with the Duke’s marriage four years earlier to a much-younger bride. This painting, in Goffen’s interpretation, depicts a physically mature bride welcoming her husband into their bedroom.

During the European colonial period from the 1500s to the mid-1900s (and particularly during the 1800s), “orientalism” was a defining mode of representation. Orientalism is a term used by art historians and cultural theorists, first devised by Edward W. Said, to describe the conventions by which Western artists imagine and depict “the other”—specifically, Arab people and cultures. Said’s argument was that Orientalism depicts the East as timeless, unchanging, static, undeveloped, whereas Western society is portrayed as superior, rational, and civilized.  A common representational trope of Orientalism was the “odalisque.” An odalisque refers to a female slave in a (Turkish) harem of the sultan. Many masterpieces of art history, including several paintings by Jean-Auguste Dominque Ingres, depicted “exotic” women in harems, which marked an update of the conventional female nude within the socio-political context of the period. Foreign women were abstracted and used as rhetorical and allegorical tools to advance the economic project of colonialism.

Ingres painting Grand Odalisque depicts an odalisque, or concubine and indicates the artist’s transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism. The elongated proportions and lack of anatomical realism of the figure amplify her sensuality and curvature. Additionally, the fan she holds in her hand and the lush blue and gold fabric that surrounds her underscores the sense of exotic otherness that permeates the composition. Titian’s Venus of Urbino, as well as this painting by Jacques-Louis David, influenced the reclining pose of the figure.

Edouard Manet is considered one of the most important nineteenth century painters. Typically associated with the school of French Impressionism, his paintings were very influential on the development of modern style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In his 1863 painting Olympia, he obviously references Titian’s Venus of Urbino but makes some important differences, undoing the conventions of the female nude. For example, while Titian’s Venus coyly covers her sex, Manet’s Olympia presses firmly on it. Also, the dog on the bed of Titian’s Venus symbolizes fidelity whereas the cat at the foot of Olympia’s bed symbolizes promiscuity – it arches its back, suggesting that it is a stranger rather than a familiar person who has entered the space. Indeed, whereas the identity of Titian’s Venus remains unclear, the subject of Manet’s painting was a well-known Parisian prostitute.

The black housemaid who accompanies the white prostitute-model in the painting further implicates class issues. As the cultural theorist bell hooks has stated, “painters exploring race as an artistic subject matter in the nineteenth century often created images contrasting white female bodies with black ones in ways that reinforced the greater value of the white female icon.” (hooks 1992/2015, 64). In Manet’s Olympia, the alabaster white skin of the central figure is highlighted by the white sheets, while the maid (and cat) are nearly obscured against the dark background. In Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the nude subject seems to defer to the gaze of the viewer, by offering her body and sexuality through her demeanor and gestures. Part of the forcefulness of Manet’s Olympia is that the nude subject takes the gaze back from the beholder, by staring directly at the viewer.  Here, the female nude no longer references classical beauty and proportion, but rather reveals the underbelly of society—subverting art historical convention.

Just as Manet referenced Titian to create a work of art that was incendiary in terms of both form and content, many artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century confronted the tradition of female nudity to create incendiary modern artworks. In her influential article “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting,” the feminist art historian Carol Duncan focuses on this trend and argues that the canonical and sexually charged works of fauvist, cubist, and expressionist painters assert the sexual domination of male artists and reflect a male perspective that views women as powerless and submissive. For example, in the 1913 painting Crystal Day by German Expressionist Erich Heckel, a nude woman without any features stands in a landscape in what Duncan identifies as a “passive, arms-up exhibitionist pose that occurs so frequently during this period” (Duncan, 33). Duncan’s socio-political approach to art history drew connections between gender inequality in society and the mythology of the avant-garde, particularly the tropes of male artist as virile genius and women subjects as “powerless, sexually subjugated beings” (Duncan, 31).

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon is one of the foundational works of modern art and its revolutionary style was integral to the development of Cubism. As Duncan put it, “No painting of this decade better articulates the male-female dichotomy and the ambivalence men experience before it” (Duncan, 36). Both the figures and their setting appear fractured and angular, in a non-realistic manner. Due to the references of its title, the common interpretation of this painting is that it depicts prostitutes in a brothel. Picasso uses primitivism to attack the academic tradition of depicting female nudes in interior spaces by creating figures that are wholly “other”—distorted, monstrous, and sexually threatening. Scholars have interpreted a range of visual sources in the painting, from ancient Greek kouroi to Iberian art to African masks. In this massive (nearly eight feet square) painting, the women stand tall and seem to disorient traditional representations of female passivity by menacing the viewer, an effect amplified by the incoherent and shallow space of the composition. Although their arms are raised in a traditional gesture of accessibility, their cold stares and hard mouths contradict their stance. This is considered a radical work of art because Picasso had subverted viewers’ expectations of female nudity as well as conventional representation.

In the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, artists have continued to engage the classical tradition and its legacies. Many artists, for example, have revisited Manet’s Olympia to create works of art with aesthetic as well as social messages.

Morimura is a contemporary Japanese artist currently living in New York, who is concerned with intercultural exchanges between the East and West and the articulation of modern identity in the crossroads of cultural and economic globalization. He often appropriates elements of art history as well as popular culture into his work, placing stereotypes in contradictory contexts to challenge the ways in which viewers perceive concepts of traditional cultural identity. Portrait (Futago), he has placed himself in the position of the prostitute in Olympia. In so doing, Morimura switches the gender (masculine) culturally assigned to him by his sex (male) and takes on the role both of Olympia and the black maid. By taking a foundational work of (western) modern art and inserting himself within it, Morimura challenges the ways in which western audiences perceive Asian cultural identity; for instance through stereotypes of Asian males as effeminate. The element of cross-dressing in this work also relates to the artist’s identity as gay, and extends his gender performance critiquing stereotypes of Asian male effeminacy to include stereotypes of gay men as effeminate, as well. However, the artist does not perform seamless drag and viewers remain aware that this is a male figure. This has the effect of calling attention to the social construction of stereotypes as well as gender.

Jan Banning is an artist who took on the legacy of Olympia and race, but from a different perspective. Banning was born in the Netherlands in 1954 to immigrant parents from the Dutch East Indies. He has a background in social and economic history and focuses on issues of geopolitics and power in his photography. In his take on Manet’s Olympia, titled Danae Olympia, Banning reverses the race of the figures in the composition. Here a Jamaican immigrant of the Netherlands takes the place of Olympia. Newsweek Senior Photo editor, Jamie Wellford, described this work as Banning’s “creative solution to addressing the hypocrisy in the right wing’s position on immigration in Europe.” Banning also explains in his artist statement: “Xenophobia, and especially Islamophobia, is on the rise in many European countries … In this series (National Identities), based on national cultural symbols, I give immigrants a main role by using them as models in my photographic variations on classic iconic paintings. By doing this, I question the concept of homogeneous “national identities” of European countries” (

The legacy of the female nude in art was also questioned after the second wave feminism in the 1970s. The feminist art movement pushed the concept of women as creators of art, not just its subjects. Many feminist artists used their own bodies and embodied experiences as the form and content of their art, contributing to the development of the postmodern practice of body art.

Alice Neel was a New York-based figurative painter who only gained recognition for her art later in her life, in the context of the feminist art movement of the 1970s. Pregnant Maria is one of several portraits of pregnant nude women by Neel in which we see a cognitive dissonance between the maternal nudity (non-sexual) and the sensual pose of the reclining female nude. The steady gaze of the subject and the position of her limbs indicate a measure of self-possession rarely seen in the female nudes of the western tradition. This is a reclining nude, but she does not cover her sex organs as in the convention of “Venus pudica.” She is neither modest nor provocative, she appears to be simply herself.

Also in the 1970s, Joan Semmel began a series of paintings that express the tenets of women’s liberation, such as privileging a woman’s point-of-view and egalitarianism between the sexes. In her painting Intimacy/Autonomy, the viewer seemingly inhabits the eyes of the subjects, and looks down upon two naked bodies—one male, one female—lying in a bed. The artist’s use of a shallow space and cool, non-realistic colors amplifies the utopian quality of the composition. This is a new world of sexual egalitarianism shaped by intimacy and autonomy, the feminist ideals that are underscored in the painting’s title.

Sylvia Sleigh reverses the paradigm of the reclining female nude in western art history by painting male nudes in the same pose, often depicting herself in the composition as the artist. This amplifies the reversal of traditional dynamics in art: the woman has become the painter and the man has become the model. Interestingly, in Philip Golub Reclining, Sleigh’s male nude is seemingly feminized, perhaps due in part to his long hair, bracelet, and delicate facial features. By indicating the name of the subject’s painting in the title, the artist re-routes the processes by which (female) nudes are typically objectified in painting.

In her “Nudes” series, Philadelphia-based artist Erin M. Riley combines the ancient technique of weaving with “selfies” (self-portraits taken with digital cameras or smart phones) appropriated from social media. She calls selfies the “traditional nude of our time” ( Riley was inspired by internet message boards, and the frequent requests therein to “send noodz.” She noticed that most of the images she came across were women posing in front of mirrors. Noting the contrast between medium and subject in her work, Riley has said, “depicting these images with tapestry allows them to be slowed down” ( Although these are images of nudes taking self-portraits, Riley blanks out the faces to preserve anonymity—which also has the effect of objectifying the subjects.

Some cultural critics, such as Alicia Eler (, have argued that the selfie is an “act of taking back the gaze.” Indeed, one can arguably trace the trend back to feminist artists including Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Adrian Piper, Francesca Woodman, and Ana Mendieta, who explored self-portraiture in their work as a means of gaining control over their image and re-routing male control of women’s bodies.

For female artists of color, the task was not merely to re-route the male objectification of women’s bodies, it was also to confront the absence of non-white bodies from the canon of art history. Mickelane Thomas, for example, in her Le dejeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires, takes Manet’s painting and inserts women of color. Self-portraiture has been a significant mode of representation for marginalized artists to create new, empowering imagery.

At the End of Class...

Erin M. Riley, from Nudes series, c. 2013, tapestry.

Possible discussion ideas include expanding Berger’s thesis in the context of the digital age, and thinking about the power of the selfie as an artistic means of self-determination. The term “art hoe” describes a trend among predominately young women of color who take selfies in front of works of art in museums, or superimpose themselves in front of paintings. The “movement” was founded by young adult artists and bloggers Mars and Jam. The intention behind this trend is to create a platform for expression for marginalized young people who typically do not see themselves reflected in conventional canons of art history.

What does seeing a POC superimposed over a white man or woman do? What kind of impact does this trend have? What message does it send about exclusion and inclusion? As one participant in the trend stated, “We have a personal understanding of what it’s like to be excluded … and we made this movement to make a space for that” (

Tara Burk (author) is a Philadelphia-based art historian. Her work appears in places such as WSQ and Journal of Curatorial Studies. You can check out more of her work at

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.