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Members' Research Report Archive

The Nude in the Renaissance in Europe, 1400 – 1530        

Thomas Kren, J. Paul Getty Museum, emeritus
Edmond J Safra Visiting Professor, spring 2016

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Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods (left half, detail), c. 1485 / 1488. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

The Nude in the Renaissance in Europe, 1400 – 1530, an exhibition that will open at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in October 2018 and travel to the Royal Academy in London four months later, examines the origins and development of the nude as an artistic theme. Although the emergence of the nude in European art has long been closely associated with the Italian Renaissance and specifically with the revival of the classical ideals of human form, separate and distinct traditions of the nude emerged in other parts of Europe starting at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The nude engaged the talent of Italian artists as diverse as Donatello (1386 – 1466), Botticelli (1445 – 1510), Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Raphael (1483 – 1520), and Titian (c. 1485 /1490 – 1575), but also leading northern artists such as the Limbourg brothers (Herman, Paul, and Johan; active 1385 – 1416); Jan van Eyck (1390 – 1441); Jean Fouquet (1420 – 1481); Meister Francke (1380 – 1435); Jan Gossaert (1478 – 1532); Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528); and Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 – 1553). The unclothed human form had long played a significant role in European art, but the level of sophistication in naturalistic modes of representing the nude — both technically and conceptually — rose dramatically across Europe after 1400. These changes enriched the meanings and enhanced the appeal of the nude as both artistic motif and subject while giving rise to a variety of types of nudes. Classical models in the south and the development of the technique of painting in oil in the north contributed to the depiction of diverse types of bodies that shared an ever greater vibrancy, corporeality, and immediacy. The nude in a range of media inspired many of the great masterpieces of the era.

This project endeavors to consider the artistic, cultural, and technical factors that led simultaneously to the rise of naturalistically represented nudes in distinct regions, primarily of Western Europe, and to trace the separate strands of developments that sometimes ran parallel and other times intertwined. Recent scholarship has increasingly acknowledged the significance of the complex web of travel and cultural exchanges that connected artists and patrons across Europe during this period. For example, Italian patrons collected paintings of sensual female nudes from Northern Europe before Italian artists started producing such works. At the same time it was the Italians who, during the Quattrocento, placed the study of the human form at the center of artistic theory and practice, an innovation that spread throughout Europe during the sixteenth century. Different cultural attitudes shaped the development of each of these trends. Additionally, Christian culture and its manifestations across Europe — themselves bound up with images – contributed to the nude’s rise to prominence as well as to the controversies that arose in response to it.

The Nude in the Renaissance in Europe, 1400 – 1530 and its scholarly catalog will explore the subject thematically across five broad categories as a means of demonstrating the parallel artistic developments described above. They are “Nudity and Christian Art”; “Artistic Practice and Theory”; “Humanism, the Classical Revival, and the Expansion of Secular Themes”; “The Abject Nude”; and “Personalizing the Nude.” The Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professorship has afforded me the opportunity to pursue several avenues of research toward the writing of my catalog contributions, the refinement of the content and organization of the catalog, and the completion of the exhibition checklist. In “Before Fontainebleau: The Origins of the Nude in French Art, 1400 – 1500,” a lecture given at the National Gallery of Art in May, I argued that certain French artists outside Italy consciously adapted the nude as subject matter over the course of the fifteenth century, and I considered how their choices intersected or departed from the new attitudes and practices being shaped in Italy by a burgeoning humanism. The lecture and responses to it from colleagues are shaping the arguments of my essay for the exhibition catalog.