Rooted in ancient mythology, depictions of the female nude in art serve as idealized symbols of beauty, sex, and romance. Influenced by religion and societal norms, the many ways in which this archetype is presented continue to evolve today.
Dating back to the 1st or 2nd century A.D., this Roman work depicts Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love and beauty. Although she was known as Venus by the Romans, this work is titled as a depiction of Aphrodite because it copies an original Greek statue. Shown in a state of undress, the work originally shows Aphrodite both modestly and suggestively shielding her exposed bosom and pubis, which were still visible to the viewer.
The Three Graces
Carved in Rome in the 2nd century A.D., this work represents Aglaia (Splendor or Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer or Abundance), the handmaidens of Aphrodite. Daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, The Three Graces are patrons of the best aspects of nature and society. Typically depicted nude, these three gracious and sensuous female attendants to the gods held special importance at festivals and parties, where their loveliness was meant to inspire goodness and charity among the revelers.
Here, Lorenzo Lotto depicts Venus with the baby Cupid. This piece was likely created to celebrate a marriage, and so Lotto embeds the painting with related symbols. We see the goddess wearing a veil as Cupid playfully urinates upon her in a gesture of fertility and purity, while the ivy represents fertility and the myrtle wreath is another symbol of marriage. In the classical era, Venus was infrequently associated with marriage, but in the Renaissance, this association was emphasized. As such, depictions of Venus from this era underscore the goddess’s purity and innocence rather than her sexuality.
Created by Auguste Rodin, this exquisitely modeled sculpture depicts a couple mid-embrace, frozen for eternity in a moment of passion. Overtly sexual and romantic, the work was initially presented by Rodin as a depiction of Zephyr and Earth, and later as Cupid and Psyche, in order to veil its erotic subject in classical myth.
Influenced by historical representations of Venus from the Italian Renaissance, Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 Reclining Nude presents an expressly sexual vision of romance in art. Just a few years after Rodin’s sculpture, this confrontational presentation of the nude was radical for the period as it does not cite mythology or allegory, instead presenting an ordinary woman (not a goddess or priestess), nude, in a moment of intimate, unselfconscious repose.