The Ethics of the Female Nude

The Ethics of the Female Nude

Female Nudity in Renaissance Art: Feminist Ethical Considerations

A Case Study of Palma Vecchio’s A Blonde Woman

Oil painting of a woman with long, blonde hair, right breast exposed and flowers in her right hand
A Blonde Woman (1520) by Palma Vecchio

For contemporary feminists, the role of female nudity in Renaissance Art presents an astounding array of ethical contradictions. While formally beautiful, such uses of nudity can be seen to reduce women to their sexuality and inherently perpetuate sexist ideals. The analysis of such works opens discussions of gender politics, identity, eroticism, and the very roots of art historical traditions. In the following analysis, I offer a case study of  Palma Vecchio’s A Blonde Woman. I will use this work to serve as an example of the many areas of contradiction which arise from feminist interpretations of female nudity in Renaissance works, and I will contextualize it with other relevant works. In full, I will discuss the variety of discourses surrounding female nudity in art, and the application of ethicist principles as a resolve to the contradictions which they raise.

The Gender Politics of Commissions and the Male Gaze

To begin any discussion on identity in art, it is first crucial to understand not the individuals depicted in the work, but rather the individuals responsible for its commission and the process behind that commission. In the context of the case study addressed in this paper, one must begin by looking at portraiture. As explained by Paola Tingali in her book Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, and Identity, “Portraits were commissioned more and more to signify the status of living women, or to mark important events in their lives, or even to celebrate their beauty” 1 Should this be true, one may easily believe that women were accurately and fairly depicted in portraits, and that works that feature women were purely celebrations of them. However, this is not the case. Throughout the Renaissance, the commissions process was dominated almost entirely by men. Regardless of subject, women rarely commissioned any works, let alone works of themselves. In feminist discourses, this has wide ranging and significant implications. Men commissioned, and in turn controlled, the portraiture industry, and almost all other works. In this way, it is clear that the ways in which women were depicted, the extent to which their identity was revealed, and the most prominent qualities which were to be represented were all determined by men. In this structure, since men are commissioning the works, feminine identity is determined not by its own agency, but rather strictly in the context of the male gaze.

Here we encounter one of the most frequently used and important phrases in feminist discourse: the male gaze. While the term is rather self-explanatory, I find it useful to establish a working definition of the way in which it will be employed in this analysis. I will refer to the Male Gaze as defined by Edward Snow in “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems.” In this text, Snow explains the male gaze through a discussion of Manet’s  1863 Olympia. He explains that the notion of the male gaze “also leaves unquestioned the hypothetical maleness of the viewer’s gaze. It may, in fact even hypermasculinize the genre. Isolating the viewer in his maleness . . . beyond this it fixes the viewer in the viewing place, and determines the depicted woman strictly as the object of ‘his’ gaze.” 2 This encapsulates the essence of the male gaze, in which males, as the primary commissioners and inherently the intended viewers, ensure feminine subjects are depicted in line with the tastes and desires of men. The only aspects of women which are valued through art are those which appeal to male viewers, and those which do not are excluded.

Olympia (1856) by Édouard Manet
Female Identity, Female Anonymity

By limiting femininity to within the male gaze, women’s identities were often stripped to simply their sexuality, with the works treating them as objects to be viewed rather than people to be understood. This way of portraying women was reinforced through the political and social structures of the Renaissance, as portraiture was often used as an expression of power or class. Tingali addresses how in Renaissance political structures, society did not need portraits of wives and daughters like it needed portraits of lords and doges. For this reason, women were displayed in portraiture not for their roles in society, but rather for the ways they “invite a sensuous response through the use of clothes and jewels, through the direction of the gaze, which at times invites, at times evades the viewer’s eye.”3

However, these gender politics did not just result in feminine identity being diminished. In fact, they gave rise to an entirely new reality of feminine portraiture which was unique from that of portraits of men: In many cases, portraits of women were not, in fact, depictions of real women. Rather, they were expressions of feminine ideals, and depictions of types of women. Here, our case study serves as a phenomenal example. The lack of identity can be found in the name of the work: A Blonde Woman. Unlike portraits of men, this woman is not even recognized by her name—rather, she is just a woman. This lack of a name is a blatant indicator of the absence of identity in the portrait. In fact, modern art historians have no way to determine who this woman was, or if she was a real person at all. The form of the painting fits that of popular Venetian feminine portraits of the time. Tingali addresses how “half-figure paintings representing unidentified beautiful women in contemporary clothes became fashionable during the first decades of the sixteenth century.”4 In this popular style, one sees feminine identity not just being reduced, but being either entirely replaced with anonymity or simply made a figment of the male imagination.

The Contradiction of Isabella D’Este

One prominent figure offers a contradiction to the gendered commission structure: Isabella D’Este. As one of the only women in the Renaissance to own a prominent studiolo, one can look to her actions and the works that she commissioned to achieve a better understanding of the realities of female identity in the Renaissance. In her studiolo, D’Este did indeed collect works of nude women, so one may assert that women took part in such viewing pleasures as well. However, further study into D’Este’s methods of collection would see otherwise. Tingali addresses how Isabella D’Este did commission some nude works, but it was clear eroticism was not her intention. The clearest example arises from records of one of D’Este’s commissions, which reveals that the commissioned artist has painted various nude female figures into the painting, seemingly just placed as additions with no real substance or purpose. Tingali reveals that D’Este was upset by this, writing that the women were “meant to be clothed and doing something else.”5 This reflects D’Este’s apparent disapproval of inclusion and use of women purely for sexual substance, and one could extrapolate that, had art been commissioned by a female, and inherently not subject to the male gaze, women may not be portrayed in such manners.

Feminine Sexuality as Danger

The male gaze does not simply allow for women to be sexualized without consequence. Indeed, as tenants of religious Renaissance society would have it, there was inherent guilt in the enjoyment of the sexualized female. However, this allowed no grace to women. Instead, it transformed into a common theme of depicting feminine sexuality as exotic, dark, and dangerous—the ultimate bastion of temptation. Take, for example, Bronzino’s Allegory with Venus and Cupid, as discussed by Tinagli. In her book, Tinagli walks the reader through the many symbols that comprise the overall meaning of this piece, and one soon discovers it is far from a celebration of the beauty of Venus’ body. She addresses how “The seduction of Venus operates not only through the pleasure offered by the representation of a smooth body . . . but also through the intellectual delights of the decoding game.”6 It is this “decoding game” that reveals the darker aspect of this depiction of Venus. Interpretations vary, but Tinagli addresses multiple different understandings: That the piece portrays the folly of love and lust which is ultimately revealed to be laden with lies and deceit, or the work reveals “not only the pain and deceit of love, beauty and lust, but also illness, madness, and, finally, death, under the gleaming surface . . . of elegant and graceful naked bodies” as the painting addresses the outbreaks of Syphilis in Europe at the time.”7 In both interpretations, one thing remains constant: That lust after Venus, and inherently lust after a woman, is dangerous. Rather than a celebration of her figure, the painting acts as a warning to men of the consequences of succumbing to feminine beauty. In instances like this, one sees how certain works which may appear at first to celebrate the beauty of the female figure actually display it as dangerously lascivious.

Not all works are as explicit as Allegory with Venus and Cupid, but such dark themes are still present in most works, even if in subtler forms. Here, our case study serves again as an example. In A Blonde Woman, Vecchio toys with the seduction of the woman through one of the most common symbols: the gaze. While in many formal portraits, the subject gazes out of the frame, the blonde woman looks directly at the viewer. Backed in darkness, she is scantily clad, with her garments seeming to fall off her person and exposing her breast. Her demeanor—including her gaze—invites the viewer in, as her body serves as a source of sexual temptation. Further, her anonymity casts a shadow of mystery and intrigue, allowing the male viewer to relish only in her beauty. In this context, feminine sexuality is not celebrated, but rather viewed as scandalous, temptatious, and dark.

Beauty in Sensuality: The Ethical Debate of Eroticism

Sexuality was not always portrayed in such hinting ways as in The Blonde Woman. There were much more explicit pieces created during the Renaissance. which introduce an entirely new genre with which feminists must grapple: The erotic. To begin, it is useful to define exactly what erotic works are. In this paper, I employ the definition established by Lynda Nead, in her work The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. Here, she defines erotic art as “the term that defines the degree of sexuality that is permissible within the category of the aesthetic.” 8 It is the intersection wherein sexual depictions are still woven in with beauty and form, rather than solely sexual works of pornography. It is the “borderline of respectability and non-respectability,” at which art tests the limits at which it can include explicit sexuality while still maintaining its position as the opposition to pornography.

It is important to discuss the various forms of “erotic” works that were created, and their associated purposes. Not all erotic works were purely for sexual enjoyment In fact, many erotic works served “purer” purposes. Many times, such erotic works were made as sensual depictions of marriage, painted on the walls of bedrooms or pieces of furniture. They were explicit enough to not be observed in the public sphere, but were seen as serving a greater purpose, such as bolstering marriage. Tingali addresses how “Lascivious pictures [were] appropriate for the room where one has to do with one’s spouse, because once seen they serve to arouse one and to make beautiful, healthy and charming children.”9 This employment of erotic works presents an interesting dilemma in feminist discourses. Often, such works would feature nude women, interlaced with their male lovers. And again, almost all such works were exclusively commissioned by the husband. The above description highlights the issue with this, as the employment of female nudity was seen to “arouse one” and allow the couple to make children. This invites the question: Do nude paintings of women to symbolize marriage strip the role of women in matrimony to only their sexual and child-bearing attributes? It would appear that such works identify the woman as she who can serve her role by arousing the man and producing the child.

Another form of erotic art offers much more explicit contradictions in sexualization and objectification: The erotic print. While in formal portraiture, allegorical depictions of love, and other forms of elite commissioned art one can seemingly convince themselves the work was printed for “purer” reasons than objectification, prints offer a new dilemma. No longer a fine commissioned object, prints were rarely used to mark important romantic symbols. Made quickly, cheaply, and readily for mass distribution, they were used solely for their erotic intrigue. So, what does this mean for the women in such works? Indeed, prints offer a much more extreme example of objectification. Tingali references Giulio Romano’s I Modi (1524), in which “women are anything but passive objects of the sexual desires of men: they reciprocate every gesture and every caress, they actively seek and give pleasure.”10 Such prints never emboldened women as autonomous sexual beings, but rather depicted them as subjects of the sexually-autonomous man. In such works, women are seen solely as objects, as the artist makes little to no attempt to show any qualities of the female subjects aside from their sexuality. Although the full works of I Modi I have been lost, understanding of what was contained within the book is drawn from the multitude of the copies made of the prints. For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to the British Museum’s collection of drawings which are directly inspired by I Modi, drawn by Jean Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck.

Drawing depicting a couple making love, the man standing, lion skin to the left, bed in background
Untitled drawing by by Frédéric Maximilien de Waldeck (19th Century), inspired by Giulio Romano’s I Modi (16th century).

Daringly sexual and explicit, one can see the works within I Modi displayed incredible skill and artistry, even if the engravings are not considered fine art. With stunning depictions of the human form that evoke the ideals of the Greeks, and masterful representation of sexual and erotic pleasure, the book is aesthetically stunning. But how would one apply a feminist viewing to this, knowing the women are depicted simply as objects of sexual desire, being drawn as ultimate submissives to men? How can one simultaneously appreciate the skill required to skillfully depict sensuality? Questions such as these plague all the above-mentioned topics and works, as feminists grapple with appreciating the formal and aesthetic beauty of such works, while comprehending the sexist underpinnings of their creation. I cannot claim to have an answer to this, but I believe the discussion must begin with a reflection of how such underpinnings influence our understanding of what exactly formal beauty is.

Contextualizing Beauty     

As one looks back at Western art history, it becomes clear that since the commission and creation of art has been exclusively male, so too would be the ways in which one evaluates and critiques art. Take, for example, Ludovico Dolce’s description of Titian’s Venus and Adonis. In a letter to Alessandro Contarini, he states:

“Every stroke of the brush is such as Nature herself can apply. Venus looks as she would have been if she really existed . . . I swear to you, my lord, that there is no man with such good eyesight and judgment who, seeing her, does not believe she is alive. There is no man made so cold by his age, or so hard of constitution, who will not feel warmed, softened, and will not feel his blood running in his veins. . . if a statue made of marble could penetrate a young man to the very marrow so much that he left his stain on it, what could this one do, since she is made of flesh, and she is beauty itself, and she seems to breathe.” 11

In Dolce’s analysis, one first sees objective evaluation of aesthetic merit which may be valid. However, as one continues to read, it becomes apparent that the sexualisation of the female figure is inherent in his evaluation. While discussing the skill of the painter in accurately representing the female body, his discussion devolves into an evaluation not based on objective success in portraying shape and form, but rather whether or not Titian was able to create a female figure that aroused lust in a male viewer. Should a work be stunning and skillful in its form and aesthetic merit but not make a man feel “warmed,” “softened,” or with the warm blood of lust running through his veins, one could argue Dolce would have deemed the piece an aesthetic failure. In this sense, one sees how the basis for evaluation of aesthetic merit is interwoven with the expectation that the female figure exists to arouse the male viewer. Griselda Pollock encapsulates this idea masterfully in her work Feminist Interventions in Art’s Histories. She writes “art history is not just indifferent to women; it is a masculinity discourse, party to the social construction of sexual difference.”12However, it would be folly to think that such “sexual difference” was established in the Renaissance. Although it serves as an effective period in which to analyze such topics, the historical degradation of women goes as far back as the roots of western culture all the way to Plato and Aristotle. Nead explains:

“For Plato and Aristotle and throughout the Middle Ages, the natural world had been conceptualized as female, as ‘mother.’ With his celebration of the scientific mind, Descartes effectively recasts knowledge and reason as masculine attributes. The term ‘male’ is associated with the higher faculties of creativity and rational mental processes, while the ‘female’ is demoted to the role of passive nature and associated with the biological mechanisms of reproduction. Thus in western metaphysics, form (the male) is preferred over matter (the female); mind and spirit are privileged over body and substance.”13

Here, it becomes clear that the longstanding history of art has based its definitions of what is formally beautiful, and thus an aesthetic success, in sexist traditions. Thus, it would only make sense that contemporary understandings of art, which find their foundations in such art historical traditions, are rooted in such sexist systems. Thus, an ethical contradiction arises: If one wishes to evaluate the “beauty” of a work of art from an art historical perspective, can one truly do so in a “feminist” way? To what extent is our understanding of “beauty” as defined by art historical patterns intertwined with centuries of female objectification? These questions lead into the penultimate topic of this essay: The balance of art, beauty, and feminist ethics.

Feminism, Art, and Ethicism

To close, I return to the case study of this essay: A Blonde Woman. With all the aforementioned arguments in mind, it would seem difficult to appreciate such a piece. However, I find myself appreciating so many aspects of this work of art which I love. The vibrancy of color, the way Vecchio captures such a seductive gaze, the gentle curve of the Blonde Woman’s breast, seeming to drip with temptation, is, in so many ways beautiful. So, how does one approach such works with a feminist mindset? Thalia Gouma-Peterson and Patricia Mathews offer some guidance in their work The Feminist Critique of Art History. Here, they reference Broude and Gerard, discussing the ways in which a feminist can deconstruct the problems which exist in a piece, but still appreciate it as a whole. “When one takes a watch apart to see how it works, one eventually puts it back together again so that it might keep on working.”14This method initially seemed appealing to me, however Gouma-Peterson and Mathews offered a valid objection. They identified that such an approach alone would allow for problematic systems and traditions to continue, as viewers just let the watch “keep on working.” To amend this, they suggested the work of Griselda Pollock, who asserts that one cannot view the history of women in art as static blocks of information, but rather growing and changing processes.15 By viewing history as an evolving process, one can deconstruct such issues, as one did with the watch, but then go on to apply those issues to current critiques, and more mindfully consider the many aspects that make up a work of art. Rather than just putting it back together to let it keep working as is, one must consciously take the objections one has identified and contribute them to growing and changing discourses on the viewing, creation, and curation of art. In line with this, I find that the most fitting way to view such works of art as a feminist is through an ethicist lens, with ethisicsim in this context referring to Berys Gaut’s definition of that approach which considers a work to be aesthetically defective to the extent to which it manifests ethically reprehensible beliefs, and vice versa. With this approach, a modern viewer can identify such feminist ethical contradictions, and allow them to influence one’s understanding of that work of art and other works of art one may view. However, it still allows the viewer to appreciate the formal beauty of such works, which still remains an essential tenet of the enjoyment of art.


So, in full, when one looks at A Blond Woman, one should consider the reality that it was commissioned by a man, the problematic nature of the subject’s anonymity, and the ways in which thinking of such a work as beautiful may draw on centuries of sexism. However, it does not devalue the piece. Rather, one can take such issues into consideration, reconsider the extent of the work’s aesthetic successes according to ethicist principles, and allow said considerations to make one a more conscious and thoughtful viewer of such art. So, while one can understand the issues of such a work and meaningfully contribute them to modern discourse, one can still allow oneself to be captivated, and give in to the beautiful temptation of the Blonde Woman’s gaze.

  1. Paola Tingali, Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, and Identit (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 84.
  2. Edward Snow, “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems,” Representations, No. 25, January 1989, 34. JSTOR,
  3. Tingali, Women in Italian Renaissance Art, 103.
  4. Ibid., 101.
  5. Ibid., 126.
  6. Ibid., 148
  7. Ibid.,147.
  8. Lynda Nead, The Female Nude Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, (London: Routledge, 1992), 103.
  9. Tingali, Women in Italian Renaissance Art, 131.
  10. Ibid., 127.
  11. Ludocico Dolce quoted in Tingali,  Women in Italian Renaissance Art, 141.
  12. Griselda Pollock, “Feminist Interventions in Art’s Histories,” Universität Heidelberg, 12,
  13. Nead, Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, 23.
  14. Thalia Gouma-Peterson and Patricia Mathews, “The Feminist Critique of Art History,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 69, no. 3, 1987, 354. doi:10.2307/3051059.
  15. Ibid, 355-356.
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