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The Male Nude in Western Art

Seventeen male nudes by the greatest artists from ancient Greece to the twentieth century

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Love it or hate it, it’s hard to deny that the male nude has taken a back seat to the female nude in the history of western art.

Female nudes outnumber male ones in major museum collections. When curators just write “nude” in a caption, they tend to mean female nude; if the subject is a man, they almost always write “male nude.” And when the Rivington Design House gallery in New York put a photograph of a nude man in the window several years ago, it caused a minor scandal.

But this was not always so. In ancient Greece, men exercised and engaged in public athletic competitions naked. In art, athletes and gods such as Apollo are often shown nude, while females are usually shown fully or partially clothed.

In the Middle Ages, the naked human body acquired a taboo that it has not yet shaken. Very few artistic nudes survive from this period, and those that do largely depict religious themes such as the crucifixion and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Beginning with the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the classical tradition, copying ancient works but also putting their own stamp on them, such as with Michelangelo’s Dying Slave. This obsession with the ancient world accelerated with the Baroque and Neoclassical art of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.

While there are exceptions, most finished male nudes from this period depict subjects from religion or mythology, such as Sacchi’s painting of Apollo and Canova’s statue of Perseus. Finished works that show the unnamed male nude, such as Rembrandt’s etching, are comparatively rare; but many drawings and oil sketches made privately or as studio exercises do survive.

It was in the twentieth century that it became more common to depict the male nude for itself, freed from the classical or religious “alibi” of earlier artists.

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Photographs: Many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Munch Museum for making images of these works of art freely available for download and use. Credits and links for individual works are given in the slide show.

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