A History of the Nude in European Art: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Sally Grant

A History of the Nude in European Art: A Five-Part Course with Dr. Sally Grant


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The naked body is an essential aspect of the human condition but its depiction in art has ebbed and flowed in style and frequency over time and place. This course will consider the changing, culturally-determined representation of the nude figure at key moments in European art history, from the idealized statues of ancient Greece to the distorted forms of Picasso.

A new way of representing the human figure was created in Greece during the 5th century BC. From monumental stone blocks emerged naked male bodies that were beautiful, and which appeared almost to breathe. For a culture in which the athletes of the Olympic Games performed unclothed, and the body was honored as equally as the spirit, these statues reflected the Greeks’ celebration of humanity.

While this conception of the noble body faded with the decline of the Roman Empire and languished throughout the Middle Ages, it was reborn in the Italian Renaissance. The idealized nudes of Donatello’s David (c. 1430-40) and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1482) reveal this debt to the classical tradition. The naked figure would remain an essential form of art for the following five centuries. Aside from its representation in painting and sculpture, evidence of the nude’s importance is revealed in the drawings of the Renaissance masters and by the emphasis placed on life studies in the art academy.

In the plastic arts—from the Doryphoros (c. 440 BC), or spear bearer, of Polyclitus, to Michelangelo’s David (1501-3), and Degas’s Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot (c. 1890-1910)—and in painting—from the pictorial poetry of Giorgione’s/Titian’s Concert Champêtre (c. 1509), to the confronting modernism of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (1863), and the formal experimentation of The Large Bathers (1900-1906) by Cézanne—the nude is a defining subject of European art.

Led by Sally Grant, an expert on early-modern European art, this course will analyze the changing, culturally-determined representation of the nude at key moments in art history, from its origins in ancient Greece to the distorted forms of Picasso. By considering the history of the nude, we’ll cover a major part of the canon of European art from the classical world to the turn of the twentieth century. Such is its essential nature to the discipline, that to discuss the depicted nude is to reflect on the beauty of art.

Lecture 1: The Birth of the Nude–Sculpture in Ancient Greece

With the creation of a statue of a young male nude in Greece in c. 480 BC a new way of conceiving the body representationally was realized. In this first class, we’ll consider what changed stylistically, the concept of ideal beauty, and how cultural beliefs impacted the different ways in which male and female nudes were depicted in antiquity.

Lecture 2: Sacred and Secular–The Re-birth of the Nude in Renaissance Florence and Northern Europe

For roughly 800 years—from the decline of the Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages—the naked body was not represented in art as a subject to be celebrated. But in fourteenth-century Italy, a renewed interest in classical learning led to the nude’s reappearance in sculpture and painting. This seminar will look at the various ways that the nude was depicted, in both religious and mythological works, by artists like Donatello and Botticelli in Early Renaissance Florence, and by painters such as Van Eyck and Cranach in Northern Europe.

Lecture 3: “The Measure of All Things"–The Italian High Renaissance

The statement by the Greek philosopher Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things” encapsulates a belief in the centrality, and nobility, of humankind. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man (c. 1485-90) articulates this visually. In this class, we’ll explore how some of the world’s other great artists captured this idea in their representations of the nude for the cultural centers of sixteenth-century Italy—Raphael and Michelangelo in Rome, and Giorgione and Titian in Venice.

Lecture 4: Of Flesh and Fornication–The Baroque, the Rococo, and the Romantic

In the seventeenth century, the balanced harmony of the Renaissance gave way to images that emphasize drama and heightened emotions. In the first half of this session, we’ll consider how this shift influenced the nudes of Baroque masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Bernini. In the second half, we’ll focus on eighteenth- to early-nineteenth-century France and discuss scenes of sensuous fancy by the likes of Boucher and Watteau, and exotic elegance in the paintings of Ingres.

Lecture 5: A New Naked–The Modern World

This course began with a new way of seeing the naked body and so it will end. In nineteenth-century France, the nude remained a central subject of art, but more than ever it also served as a means of formal experimentation. This last seminar will examine the move away from naturalistic representation in the works of Manet, Degas, and Renoir. It will close by considering the distorted figures of Cézanne and Picasso, and the nude’s final erasure in abstraction.

Sally Grant is an art historian who specializes in early-modern Venice. Born and raised in Scotland, she completed her PhD in Art History and Italian Studies at the University of Sydney. She’s now based in New York where her work spans art history scholarship and arts and culture journalism. She was a Summer Fellow in the Department of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C., and she’s currently writing a book on the art and experience of eighteenth-century Venetian villeggiatura (villa visiting). As an arts and culture journalist, Sally writes for publications such as Artforum, Australian Book Review, and Ms. Magazine.

 

How does it work?

This is a five-part journey series held weekly and hosted on Zoom. Please check the schedule for the specific dates and times for each lecture.

Is there a reading list in advance?

Though the course is open to participants with no background in European art, there are suggested readings for further investigation. You will receive this soon after course registration.

How long are the lectures?

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A.

How much is the course?

The course is $175 for five lectures.

Is a recording available?

In general, our courses are not recorded. However, if you need to miss a lecture please let us know in advance and we can arrange for a recording for that session on an individual basis.

This course is not suitable for children under age 16

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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