There are many reasons that the female nude is such a popular subject for painting. It is an aesthetically pleasing subject. Most artists and most patrons have been men. It is an extension of a centuries long tradition of life drawing. It has the potential to be erotic. It can shock.
These 20 are mostly very well known and mostly were painted by some of the greatest artists of all time. Putting them in date order removes favouritism and also gives an interesting view of the evolution of art and the evolution of the subject.
Giorgione, Sleeping Venus c 1510.
The first reclining nude in Western painting. Possibly completed by Titian, who subsequently painted the very similar Venus of Urbino.
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1532 or 1534.
Just a gratuitous picture of a naked female with no Bible, no mythology, no allegory. A bit like Playboy really.
Botticelli, The Birth of Venus c 1484-86.
An easily understandable scene from Greek mythology.
Durer, Eve 1507.
One of a pair of panel paintings. The other depicting Adam.
Rubens, Leda and the Swan 1601 & 1602.
This he painted twice and it is a loose copy of a lost Michelangelo picture. Rubens painted many nudes, mostly from mythology.
Velazquez, Rokeby Venus c 1647-51.
Remarkable for having been painted at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, so he almost certainly painted it whilst in Italy.
Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath 1654
Illustrating an Old Testament story. So this is a religious painting.
Goya, The Nude Maja 1797-1800
He also painted the same picture with clothes on. She looks at the viewer and has pubic hair.
Ingres, Grande Odalisque 1814
Concubine. One of Ingres’ many exotic pictures of the East. Which he never visited.
Manet, Olympia 1863.
Puts you in the position of a client visiting a prostitute. Look at her gaze.
Courbet, The Origin of the World 1866
This broke the taboo of depicting women’s genitalia.
Gérôme, Truth coming out of her Well, 1896.
Thought to be a comment on the Dreyfus affair, or a criticism of Impressionism or of photography. Gérôme painted many nudes, usually in a Harem, slave, exotic east or ancient Rome context.
Gauguin, Nevermore 1897
Her name is Ahura, she is 15 years old and has just lost her baby. Gauguin, the father, is 49 and syphilitic. These days just looking at it probably makes you a paedophile.
Klimt, Danae 1907.
Typical Klimt erotica, this time based on mythology.
Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase No2, 1912
The artist seemed to troll every successive -ism. This was his go at Cubism.
Schiele, Standing Nude with Stockings, 1914
This is fairly mild for Schiele. When does art become pornography? Go to Google Images to see where the boundary lies with his work.
Modigliani, Reclining Nude 1917- 1918.
He painted a lot of nudes. This one sold at auction for $170 million, making it one of the world’s most expensive paintings.
Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932.
At $106.5 this is another one of the world’s most expensive painting. It depicts Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter.
Matisse, Blue Nude cut out, 1952
Old and disabled, Matisse had a second fame for his cutouts. The nudes took several week’s thinking, then he did four very quickly.
Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping 1995.
Nobody else ever painted flesh so grotesquely. In 2008 it became the most expensive painting by a living artist when it sold for $33.6 million.