Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Bather Arranging Her Hair” (1885), oil on canvas, 36 3/16 x 28 3/4 inches (image courtesy the Clark Art Institute)

The art world loves nothing more than nudity or controversy — except, of course, for nudity and controversy. In our post-Human Centipede era, it takes a lot (arguably, too much) to raise eyebrows, but there have been many twists and turns in the public conversation about what constitutes artistic freedom, especially around depictions of the female body. Historically, the nude figure as a subject has been a battleground issue for as long as it’s been a staple of fine art. Here are some moments of naked controversy in art history.

Titian, “Venus of Urbino” (1534)

Titian, “Venus of Urbino” (1534) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

If art history is to be believed, the majority of women spent their time either frolicking naked in the woods, bathing naked in streams, or lounging naked around their boudoirs. But in its time, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1534) caused a great deal of controversy by depicting the titular goddess in an all-too-quotidian setting. Nude women were permitted to recline in mythical landscapes, but in their own bedrooms, this one presented too frank a display of sexuality. Ironically, this painting was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of Camerino Guidobaldo II della Rovere to Giulia da Varano, and Titian included many symbols of fidelity, like the dog curled at the woman’s feet representing loyalty, the posies in her hand representing love, and the servants in the background looking through her trousseaux, which might symbolize motherhood. It nonetheless raised eyebrows in its time, and even centuries later, Mark Twain was so offended by this painting that he reviewed it thusly in his nonfiction travel account, A Tramp Abroad (1880): “You may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses — Titian’s Venus. It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed — no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand.”

Francisco de Goya, “The Naked Maja” (1795–1800)

Francisco de Goya, “The Naked Maja” (1797–1800) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

This painting, the first of two nearly identical works by Francisco de Goya that take as their subject the unnamed “La Maja” (Spanish slang for a stylish commoner), caused absolute outrage in Spanish society. The unapologetic nakedness of the painting’s titular subject was controversial enough that people demanded the artist paint clothing over the figure. Goya categorically refused to do so, opting instead to paint a duplicate with one key difference. “La maja vestida” (“Maja Clothed”) was painted between 1800 and 1807, and features the same subject in the same pose, this time clad in edgy street fashion of the time. Even that version was controversial, not only for the punkish styling of the subject, but also because La Maja bore a great deal of similarity to the Duchess of Alba, a friend (and possibly love interest) of the artist and the subject of a much more conventional and official portrait by Goya. For her to appear in commoner street fashion — let alone naked — was scandalous to the point that even in 1945, generations after the painting’s creation and the death of its unnamed subject, descendants of the duchess had her remains exhumed in an attempt to forensically disprove the rumor, based on skeletal measurements.

William Etty, “Male Nude, with Arms Up-Stretched” (1828–1830)

William Etty, “Male Nude, with Arms Up-Stretched” (1828–1830) (image courtesy York Art Gallery)

British painter William Etty famously included either a male or female nude in almost all of his paintings, with a virtuosic knack for skin tones that reflected his veneration of the Old Masters and elevated his subject matter. Nonetheless, it was not enough to save him from being considered an indecent painter, both in terms of his artistic depictions of his models and his tendency to spy on them bathing or pick up male models who were lifeguards or men he met at the public bathhouses. According to the York Art Gallery, Etty was repeatedly encouraged by an art-viewing public to “turn from his wicked ways, and make himself fit for decent company.”

“Male Nude, with Arms Up-Stretched” (1828–1830) seems to step delicately around the light bondage at play in the composition; it has been speculated that the painting was meant to be hung horizontally, or that it may have been a study for another painting. Either way, it was more than a little scandalous for the time, as was “Man Lying Face Down” (c. 1820), which depicts its eponymous subject lounging in front of a scarlet curtain, on a bed atop an animal-skin rug. Racy!

Théodore Chassériau, “Etude de nègre” (“Study for Negro”) (c. 1836)

Théodore Chassériau, “Etude de nègre” (“Study for Negro”) (c. 1836) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

It could be argued that the Dominican-born French Romantic painter Théodore Chassériau was never well-known enough in his own time to court serious controversy. With 135 extant works, the majority share of which are 80 drawings, Chassériau was perhaps overshadowed by his teacher, J.A.D. Ingres, and other more successful painters to whom he lost significant commissions. Ultimately, this study (including several takes on the details of the hand, the rendering of which the painter was famously talented) was never turned into a painting but remains an outstanding example of a nude that takes a male subject of color as its focus — rare enough that it would have been extremely controversial, had Chassériau presented it as a finished work.

Edouard Manet, Olympia” (1863)

 Edouard Manet, “Olympia” (1863) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Though the reclining nude motif already had a long precedent in art history by 1865, when Edouard Manet debuted “Olympia” in the Paris Salon, the painting was still an absolute scandal for its depiction of female nudity in a non-mythical context. While the painting’s title made a mocking nod to the Classical female nude, the subject was contemporary to her time, and likely a sex worker. Her direct gaze is unashamed and confrontational, and the flowers presented by the Black maid standing at her bedside, who we now know was named Laure, indicate a token from one of her clients. Not to put too fine a point on it, Manet also added a cat by her feet. The composition and style were so outrageous to Parisian art society that the gallery had to hire round-the-clock guards to protect the painting.

Gustave Courbet, “The Origin of the World” (1866)

Gustave Courbet, “The Origin of the World” (1866) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Centuries before the dick pic, Gustave Courbet created a high-art version, probably on commission for its outrageous original owner, art patron and Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil Bey. Cutting directly to the chase, Courbet casts a spread-leg vagina crowned with a thatch of dark pubic hair as the painting’s central subject, with a supporting appearance by one nude breast at the top of the painting. Khalil Bey was a flamboyant fixture of 1860s Paris society, and several of his commissions from other artists now reside in the Louvre, but his hedonistic lifestyle and penchant for gambling eventually toppled his fortunes. This painting did not cause public outcry because it was privately owned until it joined the collections of the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, but one can imagine it caused many a petit scandal throughout its tenure in private collections.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Female Nude” (1876)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Female Nude” (1876) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

It is perhaps one of the more onerous tasks of an art critic to attempt to intellectually dress up the fact that some painters just like to look at naked women. That seems to be David Carrier’s position, in a recent review of Renoir’s nudes in which he paraphrases Renoir to the effect that “had it not been for women’s breasts, it is unlikely that he would have become a figure painter.” Hey, whomst among us has failed to appreciate some breasts on occasion? But Renoir’s obsessive focus on the female form seems to be a point of much criticism, particularly with our ever-unfolding understanding that women are actual people and not sex objects (a fact which frequently escapes painters of all kinds, it must be said). Compared with some on this list that caused a sensational public outcry for their subject matter, at the time it was probably more controversial that Renoir was painting nudes in an Impressionist style than objectifying them as a source of mindless visual pleasure.

Suzanne Valadon, “Casting the Net” (1914) and “Adam and Eve” (1909)

Suzanne Valadon, “Casting the Net” (1914) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Modigliani wasn’t the only one pushing the envelope around Paris in the 19-teens; Suzanne Valadon made a name for herself in the male-dominated art scene, presenting controversial portraits that dared to turn a desiring gaze on men as subjects. In her youth, Valadon posed for artists including Renoir, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others, but later in life, she reclaimed her own image as a nude female subject, creating a controversial series of self-portraits, some of the first of their kind. Even in the libertine atmosphere of the Parisian avant-garde, a woman in possession of her own body proved to be a provocative subject — to say nothing of her tendency to use her own male lover, some 24 years younger than herself, as a model for her tableaux.

Suzanne Valadon, “Adam and Eve” (1909) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In one of her most controversial paintings, “Adam and Eve” (1909), Valadon appears naked as Eve, complete with scandalous public hair and looking quite content and casual about picking forbidden fruit. Adam, modeled by her lover, reaches for her hand — though whether in censure or encouragement is unclear. Even with the controversy stirred by her use of male subjects, Valadon was more discreet than her male predecessors or contemporaries; though Eve is presented in full frontal, Adam’s penis was strategically hidden, like most in Valadon’s paintings, by angle or an object (a fig leaf, in this case, that was added later at the behest of gallery-goers).

Amedeo Modigliani, “Female Nude” (1916)

Amedeo Modigliani, “Female Nude” (1916) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

You would think that by the 1900s, the French would be done with being outraged about something as banal as the nude female body in painting, but “Female Nude” (1916) by Amedeo Modigliani still managed to make waves among the avant-garde, despite its gentle and inviting subject. The first problem, according to a critical public — which by that time was accustomed to reclining non-Classical nudes in salon shows — was the angular, non-Western features of the figure, perhaps drawn from Modigliani’s interest in Paris’s ethnographic museum of the Trocadéro. There was also the issue of the painting technique, which mixed refined brushwork with rough, literal hands-on manipulation of wet paint in the background and details of the figure’s hair. This practically animalistic approach to the nude subject was apparently too much for Parisian art viewers of the time. But the real deal-breaker was the painter’s treatment of pubic hair, a completely verboten feature of the nude painting convention of the time. In a modern context, it is difficult to imagine such a demure painting causing a scandal, but it’s important to remember that being outraged about things is one of France’s favorite national pastimes.

Contemporary Counterparts

Cassils, “Advertisement: Homage to Benglis” (2011), archival pigment print, part of the six-month durational performance Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

If you think grappling with nudity posed a problem for old-time painters, it can barely hold a candle to the controversy caused by female artists of the 1970s daring to take nudity into their own hands. Lynda Benglis absolutely rocked art history in 1974, when she took out an ad in the November issue of Artforum that featured a photograph of the artist naked but for sunglasses and wielding an extremely large prosthetic dildo in front of her biological genitalia. The stir caused by Benglis made this one of the most famous nude portraits of the last 100 years and cemented her legacy as an art world provocateur. Society had barely time to recover before Carolee Schneemann rolled out the next controversy, literally unfurling a narrow scroll of paper from her vagina while performing Interior Scroll (1975) in the nude, an exhibition of paintings accompanied by a series of performances, called Women Here and Now, held in East Hampton, New York in August 1975. Girls Gone Wild is really a step down from women of the 1970s.

Luckily for all of us, we live in an enlightened time, when nudity in art is completely uncontroversial. Just kidding! Wherever there are naked bodies doing absolutely nothing to hurt anyone, there will be a highly outraged public faction demanding that they cover up (rather than simply, you know, not look at them). It seems that artists remain standard bearers of what constitutes acceptable bodies in the art world and the public realm, and artists today, like Cassils, are still referencing the influential work of Benglis and others as they seek to bare their truth.

Editor’s Note, 5/31/2023 3:55pm EDT: A previous version of this article included an incorrect detail regarding the whereabouts of Francisco de Goya’s “The Naked Maja.” We apologize for the error.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

3 replies on “Art History’s Most Controversial Nudes”

  1. A bit of a nit, but the Corbet is a painting of a woman’s crotch; her vagina is the muscular canal leading to her reproductive organs. It’s not visible in the picture, obscured as it is by the subjects glorious bush.

  2. Regarding “The Origin of the World”, that is not a vagina, the labia are depicted. A vagina is a woman’s internal genitalia. I am not sure what to think of a woman who writes about nudes, but is either unfamiliar with female anatomy, or is choosing to reinforce misinformation about women’s physiology.

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