Few subjects seem to stir more controversy than the depiction of the nude human body in art. Classical nude painting is not devoid of this controversy.

Classical nude painting was the standard for the realist representation of both male and female nudity in western culture during the 19th century. Art students at the official academies were instructed to draw the nude human form from plaster casts modeled after ancient greek and roman sculptures.

Soon some highly important artists opted for representing the human nude form in a more authentic fashion, rather than the idealized version in classical nude painting. We can name Delacroix and Courbet in France, but, in Spain, Goya preceded these two giants of the art world with his Nude Maja, which, by the way, caused him a brush with the Holy Inquisition.

The Church had traditionally objected to any representation of nudity, with the exception of the story of Adam and Eve and the sinful in The Last Judgement. In secular painting, male heroes could be depicted as nude or almost nude. The only female allowed to freely display her body in classical nude painting or sculpture was Venus. The Renaissance awakened an interest in the classical art of Greece and Rome, and artists soon began to study in earnest the anatomy of the human body and the classical proportions in the statues of Polykleitus and Praxiteles. Such was the desire to represent the human figure as a perfect athlete of sorts that even Jesus Christ was depicted with perfectly chiseled abs in the scene of the Crucifixion.  This knowledge of anatomy and classical proportion was applied to nude figures all the way to the 19th century, when the foremost European art academies turned this style into dogma for artists who wanted to be officially recognized by the state.

During the second half of the 19th century, a new art movement was in vogue; Realism. Realism was a rebellion against the idealization of anything, the human nude body in particular. Edward Manet presented two large size paintings to the Salon, which caused a scandal with the representation of a nude woman which looked like anything but the goddess Venus. It was actually a well known prostitute which Manet often employed as his model.

Is classical nude painting spiritual, erotic or kitsch?

The main idea behind a classical nude painting is to combine the drawing abilities of the artist with the capabilities of oil paint as a medium to render flesh convincingly, in order to produce, not a mere copy of nature, but an image of a body that can be appreciated aesthetically. similar to the way we appreciate an ideal depiction of a beautiful animal, a horse for example.

In “The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form” by Lord Kenneth Clark, the author makes the distinction between the naked, a person deprived of clothes, and the nude, in which the flesh covers the soul and it’s therefore, not subject to embarrassment and shame. According to Clark, a classical nude painting “can contain significant sexual content without being obscene.”