Face: the Nude or Naked

“The nude, in our tradition, is not naked but unclothed: it is a body marked by the shapes and materials of its normal covering.” Roger Scruton, in his excellent book Beauty, describes the differences between the nude, the erotic nude, and pornography. The words “naked” and “nude” by definition are synonymous, but their artistic meanings are vastly different. Upon viewing a modern image of a woman with her pants around her calves, the reaction is to indecency. How can the suggestion of clothing degrade the body, while a complete nude in the same pose is classified as high art? Of course, Titian’s Venus of Urbino comes to discussion.

Venus of Urbino

Venus of Urbino

Compared with the verticality of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the Venus of Urbino’s prone posture sexualizes her. However, she retains her status as goddess and remains unattainable. Her face is calm, wise, aloft. She has not been reduced to physicality, but is the pinnacle of womanhood and beauty, like the Virgin Mary. This, Scruton argues, is erotic art. “She is being withheld from us, integrated into the personality that quietly looks from those eyes and which is busy with thoughts and desires of its own.”

The Birth of Venus

The Birth of Venus

As Manet’s Olympia is clearly a prostitute, sex is more than a suggestion. While the Venus is peaceful in her ownership of her form, Olympia retains fierce ownership – unless one offers the right price. Her hand is protective rather than relaxed, as is her whole, tense body. She has a challenge in her eye, not the soft, alluring gaze of the Venus. Her guarded posture makes this not the pinnacle of womanhood, but a portrait. Her face is particular, not idealized.



Scruton argues that the face portrays much – Francois Boucher’s round, voluptuous women have essentially the same face. The draw is purely physical, not a spiritual, higher standard. As Boucher’s figures are faceless, shameless bodies, they are uninhabited and soul-less. Scruton believes these paintings to be charming and attractive, but without the portrayal of soul, they cannot be beautiful. As a spiritual force, “beauty is a universal, which can be neither consumed nor possessed but only contemplated.”

Portrait of Louise O'Murphy

Portrait of Louise O'Murphy

The Venus of Urbino and Olympia are both inhabited bodies. Boucher’s Portrait of Louise O’Murphy, is sexuality without soul, and without the title, is no woman in particular. Her body is not reclining naturally, but instead is available and fleshy for flesh’s sake. While decent compared to the images we are bombarded with daily through entertainment and advertisements, Louise O’Murphy’s form is naked – a little less than nude.

This entry was published on February 23, 2012 at 5:11 pm. It’s filed under Art, Art History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Face: the Nude or Naked

  1. fantastic comparison! so if “Portrait of Louise O’Murphy” is more sexuality than soul, what do you make of Corbet?

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for posting! I’m going to order Scruton’s book.

    • Wonderful! At some point I’ll post the speech he gave at my alma mater. His dry, British humor is delightful. I certainly do not agree with everything he says, as he leaves no room for modernism in aesthetics.

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