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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Females  
 
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As goddesses, seductresses, saints, sinners, and muses, the female has been a recurring subject in art for millennia. Nude depictions of women appear in most cultures, on both sides of the equator, and in rich variety.

The early Woman (Venus) of Willendorf is rendered replete with voluptuous curves, while ancient Cycladic goddesses are depicted as skinny-figured, with arms crossed at their waists. African female nude figures often grace utilitarian objects, while Indian nudes dance alone ecstatically and sometimes embrace in same-sex groups. Central American art includes fierce nude Aztec goddesses, and Peruvian ceramic pots show women giving birth or making love. Medieval Irish "Sheela na gig" nude sculptures spread their legs and hold their vulvas open.

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An artist's passion usually influences the way he or she portrays a nude figure of whatever gender. Michelangelo (1475-1564), for instance, whose passion was for men, masculinized his female nudes, as did gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) in his studies of body builder Lisa Lyon. In contrast, bisexual architect-designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976) created the reverse effect by portraying feminized male nudes on a 1913 lacquered screen.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whose studies of nude men are sensual and sensitive, produced only one female nude, a rigidly stiff image. Dancer-choreographer Arnie Zane (1948-1988) produced desexualized--but often tender--nude photographs of women dancers.

Women Artists

Prior to the late nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, it was considered improper for women to use nudes as the subject of their art. They were excluded from studying the nude with their male counterparts in art schools. Some, such as Gwen John (1868-1939), made nude self-portraits in order to bypass social restrictions.

It has been difficult for researchers to locate complete studies of women artists' work, especially nudes, both because their work was not valued as highly as men's when it was made and because less has been researched and published about it. Some work has been lost, such as the nude photographs of a female friend made by lesbian Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) early in her career and circulated within her circle of women friends.

Unlike many gay male artists, most lesbian and many bisexual women artists working before the 1970s--sculptor Louise Nevelson (1900-1988), painter Nell Blaine (1922-1996), and photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), for example--avoided the nude. Yet for a few, the unclothed female was a rich vehicle with which to communicate their ideas.

Nineteenth-Century Lesbian Sculptors

In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous American and British women artists traveled to Rome to study marble sculpture. These included lesbians Emma Stebbins (1815-1882), Anne Whitney (1821-1915), and Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908). Stebbins' friendship circle included African-American/Native American sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis (1843-1909), who may have been lesbian.

These women chiseled nude and semi-nude (primarily female) figures and also produced figures draped as if with wet cloth that clung revealingly to the body underneath. At least once Hosmer occasioned scandal by depicting a (respectable) woman friend instead of a professional model.

American sculptors Florence Wyle (1881?-1968) and Frances Loring (ca 1887-1968) met in art school in Chicago and lived briefly in New York City before moving permanently to Toronto. They crafted nude and draped female figures in marble, a practice they continued long after the public's taste had moved on.

Early Twentieth-Century Lesbian and Bisexual Artists

Women artists of the early twentieth century took diverse approaches to nude imagery. In the 1910s and 1920s, American lesbian photographers Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) and Clara Sipprell (1885-1975) created dreamy, soft-focus, desexualized images of nude females.

Working in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976) produced graphics, including nude and semi-nude female figures, for gay and lesbian periodicals. With the coming to power of the anti-gay Nazis, the side of Mammen's illustrating career ended. Her contemporary, bisexual collage artist Hannah Höch (1889-1978), pasted disparate body parts together, creating images that comment on gender and politics.

Bisexual Polish-born artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980), working in Paris, painted full-bodied and sensuously languid Art Deco nudes.

Bisexual Mexican-Jewish painter Frida Kahlo (1910-1954), on the other hand, imbued her nudes with autobiographical content, often referencing her numerous bodily injuries (including polio, a broken backbone, an injured pelvis, and numerous surgeries) and physical and psychological pain. She also portrayed sensual female nudes together and nudes as nurturers.

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The Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest known artistic depictions of the nude female, is believed to have been created before 20,000 BCE. Photograph by Matthias Kabel.
  
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