Take a look at how the reclining nude has evolved over the past 500 years. From Titian’s revolutionary Venus of Urbino in 1538, to John Currin’s Lemons and Lace in 2015, the reclining nude has been one of the most ubiquitous painting’s in art history. Spanning generations and artistic movements, the reclining nude holds steady in its appeal, beauty, and enigmatic nature.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino has served as a template for the sensuous and symbolic reclining nude since its creation. The soft, elongated Mannerist style figure lays on a bed of rich fabric and she looks directly at you. With her hand over her lap she unabashedly holds your gaze. She is in a wealthy Renaissance era house and she holds flowers. Titian makes brilliant use of the light to draw the viewer’s eye to her skin. Her theatrically-lit flesh is juxtaposed against the dark fabric of the bed. All of the elements of Titian’s reclining nude are sensuous and of the flesh.
Then in 1863 comes Edouard Manet’s Olympia. Clearly looking at Titian, Manet uses some of the same symbols in his reclining nude—flowers, a pet at the foot of the bed, and a hand over the figures lap. However, Manet takes his painting a step further by placing the viewer in the narrative of the scene. Olympia, a common name for a prostitute during the 19th century, looks directly at the viewer while a bouquet of flowers is presented to her by a servant. Perhaps the flowers are from a suitor, and maybe the suitor is the viewer, who she is directly looking at. Also, the way Manet treats the flesh is much different than Titian. Olympia is much more rigid and posed than the Venus of Urbino, and light is washing out her body, making her look weightless and glowing. There are hardly any shadows on her body, save for her face which is realistically highlighted and shadowed, while Venus of Urbino is shaded realistically, giving body depth and weight. Both paintings are oil on canvas but the handling of the paint is much different between artists.
The reclining nude continued to be used frequently between movements, periods, and artists. Pioneer of the Realism movement, Gustave Courbet, is one of the masters of the reclining nude. His nudes are much less sensual than Titian and Manet, and much more dark and enigmatic. For example, his 1866 painting, Woman with a Parrot is dark, ghostly, and mysterious. The figure is in a contorted position and laying completely flat on a white sheet. Her dark hair is wildly resting on the floor above her head, and her flesh is pale and shadowed almost blending into the white sheet she is lying on. The use of color in this painting, and in many Courbet paintings, is sparing. Even the parrot is dull in color and her limbs are limp, except for the one arm which is outstretched towards the parrot. In many ways, this painting is a departure from the traditional reclining nude established by Titian and Manet. Rather than view the figure head-on like in Olympia and Venus of Urbino, we view the figure at a diagonal and we look down her body at an elevated angle. A similar angle would later be used in 1961 by Tom Wesselmann in his Great American Nude No. 2.
After Courbet, artists have continued to reinvent and personalize their reclining nudes. American artist John Currin is one of the most inventive, humorous, and technically brilliant painter of nudes. A great example of Currin’s mastery with the subject is his 2015 painting Lemons and Lace which shows a High Renaissance-esque redhead clad in silky lingerie. The figure is a return to the classicism and naturalism of Titian. Currin similarly makes use of still-life, cropped view, and excellent handling of flesh. However, there is something almost comical about this figure which makes it modern and wholly unique.
The reclining nude endures as one of the most pervasive subjects for all artists whether they be Renaissance aritsts, Pop artists, or Satirists.