Displaying the Renaissance Nude MSc Introduction



Representations of feminine sexuality in art have for many centuries been a contentious subject; mainly due to the debates centered on whether the female nude in art should be sexually enticing or aesthetically valuable. In 1914, Suffragette Mary Richardson damaged Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus (Figure 13) in protest to the imprisonment of her supporter, Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.’1 Lynda Nead suggests Richardson’s attack on the female nude had a more symbolic meaning rooted in notions of class and gender, which Nead argues have been entrenched in the female nude throughout history.2 Artists dissatisfied with the discipline of art and aesthetics have also utilised art galleries as a platform from which to express their rejection of the rituals and codes that perpetuate inequality in the public art gallery, which in effect, are a rejection of the interests and morals of the patriarchal ruling classes. Max H. Kirsch further explains the concept of art as commodity and aesthetics which are established by the ruling classes, ‘the western concepts of art and aesthetics are, in effect, a function of the fetishisation of luxury commodities and their consumption… they reflect the tastes and interests of the dominant white male middle class patriarchy.’3 Manet’s Olympia (1863) (Figure 12) similarly violated centuries of the academic discourse related to the aesthetic admiration of the female nude. Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Figure 3), the western emblem of high art, was portrayed as the opposite of what signified high art: a ‘degenerate’ prostitute who illicitly sold her sexuality and by her direct gaze, she is not implying shame, but confidence and power.4

Rona Goffen argues in her 1997 publications that Titian—and possibly Manet as well—was sympathetic in his portrayals of women and that he was conscientiously celebrating sexuality in his representations of the female nude.5 According to scholars such as Bette Talvacchia and Sara F. Matthews-Grieco, male and female sexuality was acknowledged and celebrated during the Renaissance.6 However, Linda Wolk- Simon and Talvacchia note that mythological subject matter provided a ‘veneer of respectability’ for sexually charged images.7 Interpretations of the erotic nude in galleries do not address these cultural and social complexities associated with Titian’s representations of the female nude seen in works of art such as Venus Anadyomene.

Art historical scholarship is not as prominent in permanent galleries and is rarely included in campaign materials such as the current bid to raise funds for Titian’s Diana and Callisto, the pendant to the National Gallery, London and National Gallery of Scotland’s Diana and Actaeon. The 2012 Titian Campaign, in conjunction with the opening of the London Olympics aims to promote universal access to Titian’s masterpieces by having artists, poets and performers reexamine Titian’s paintings and interpret their artistic value in different media. Titian’s representations of the female nude are therefore undergoing an enormous reassessment and this dissertation will seek to understand the history of this interest in Titian in Britain, and the effects of the interpretation that art galleries are providing for erotic images of the renaissance nude.


This dissertation will therefore seek to examine the different social structures that construct the frame in which the renaissance nude is currently viewed while specifically considering the National Gallery of Scotland’s 2003 acquisition of Venus Anadyomene.

Chapter one will seek to uncover the nineteenth century foundations of the hierarchies that exist within public galleries in Britain, which may favour the works of the old masters and the canon. The literature produced during the nineteenth century that advocated for the gallery as a public site for a ‘negotiation of classes,’ will be examined in order to identify the different modes of inequality that occur in the public gallery. This occurs based on the visitor’s responses and interpretations to erotic images that also take into account ‘their economic worth, and their moral and intellectual capacity, all positioned according to the dominant and specifically male middle class values.’8

In chapter two, the canon as a system of collecting and interpreting artworks will be contextualized within the National Gallery, London and the National Gallery of Scotland’s daily operations in order to gauge the effects of this system on the interpretation of erotic imagery. This section will specifically investigate the Titian Campaign, the 2005 Venus Rising exhibition and two case studies, Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino and the Three Ages of Man by Titian. The chapter will conclude with case studies considering the work of contemporary artists Tom Hunter and Calum Colvin who are challenging traditional notions of high art through their recreations of Titian’s representations of the female nude.

Finally, chapter three will implement Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital and taste in order to determine whether social pressures outside the gallery

influence the ways in which the renaissance nude is more or less de-eroticised in exhibitions. Pressures from the donors, in this case, the 6th Duke of Sutherland will be considered, the pressures from the institution itself and how they effect the self-image of the public gallery, financial motivations for acquiring canonical works of art, and finally, the goals and interests of funding bodies that support prestigious acquisitions. These three cultural and social bodies will be investigated in order to determine whether self-censorship on behalf of the gallery is one of the main reasons for how sexuality and gender is addressed in public galleries.


1 Nead, 1992. 35-6.

2 Nead, 1992. 36.

3 Kirsch. 2000. 2.


4 Eisenman, 2002. 287-8.

5 Goffen, 1997. 11-2.

6 Talvacchia, 2001. 4. Matthews-Grieco, Sara F. 2010. Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy. (Farnham, Surrey; Burlington, Ashgate).

7 Wolk-Simon, 2008. 54-5. Talvacchia, 2001. 4.

8 MacLeod, 2006. 47.


About the Author

Leave a Reply

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.