It's pretty certain that the female nude is the most common icon in Western art. Some latter-day politicians would tell us that it has become so more for political than artistic reasons. Some others would like to say that the significance of the nude is Western art is pretty directly sexual. Both of these ideas have some truth behind them, and they are among those theories which have little against them except the facts: when one has seen enough nudes, and looked at them long enough, one learns from one's own reactions that they are mainly used to create and symbolize Beauty.

But how does the symbol work? Until the Nineteenth Century, it was usually clear that the symbol was an ideal, generalized, abstracted woman,

Ingres  - The Spring


though there were some exceptions.

Then, suddenly, the later stages of Romanticism collided with the tradition, and all kinds of questions were asked. We were presented with a choice among the general, idealized nude, the individual, specified, with all of her accidents, even if she may have been selected to conform to an ideal,

Edouard Manet - Lunch on the Grass Edouard Manet - Lunch on the Grass, detail
  Images courtesy of Mark Harden's Artchive


or the typical, ordinary woman.

Edgar Degas - Woman Combing Her Hair


Woman is still the symbol of Beauty, but we've never since been able to agree on which woman we're talking about. That decision may indeed be a political one.

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