The Renaissance Nude at the Getty

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Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Titian, all Italians, are artists associated with Renaissance art, which easily conjurs the idea of nude figures whether the figure of Christ or the voluptuous Roman goddess Venus.

Yet, an exhibition at the Getty Museum, The Renaissance Nude, is the first to explore how the nude came to be represented, not only in Italy but across Europe between the 15th and 16th centuries. Lead curator Thomas Kren brought together more than 100 works, mostly paintings, in a feast for the eye as well as the mind. Consider it ideal fare for the holiday season. It is on view through January 27, 2019.

Lucas Cranach the Elder German, 1472–1553 Adam and Eve, about 1510 Oil and tempera on limewood Unframed: 59 x 44 cm (23 1/4 x 17 5/16 in.) Image courtesy of the Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie

Beginning with Christian themes, the show opens with the sober drama of The Temptation of Adam and Eve (1519) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, the familiar scene of the couple after they have discovered shame and covered themselves with fig leaves.

Donatello Italian, about 1386–1466 St. Jerome in Penitence, 1454–1455 Polychrome wood Object: H: 147 x W: 53 x D: 36 cm, 23.4 kg (57 7/8 x 20 7/8 x 14 3/16 in., 51.5876 lb.) Object (base): W: 43.5 x D: 32.5 cm (17 1/8 x 12 13/16 in.) Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza Photo Credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY

Baptism of Christ (1498-1500) by Perugino is a small jewel, revealing the word of God made flesh, with Jesus wearing nothing but a loin cloth as he stands praying in the shallow water.

Throughout the Renaissance, artists were commissioned to create devotional Books of Hours for wealthy patrons. The curators have positioned two in droll juxtaposition. An illustrated manuscript by Jean Bourdichon that was commissioned for Louis XII of France includes a nude Bathesheba tempting the distant King David. Yet a companion Book of Hours commissioned by his pious Queen includes the unclothed St. Sebastian, but no figures of women.

Jean Bourdichon French, 1457–1521 Saint Sebastian, 1503–1508 Tempera Closed: 33 x 22 x 8 cm (13 x 8 11/16 x 3 1/8 in.) Bibliothèque nationale de France

There are numerous versions of St. Sebastian since the image was considered to guard against the plague. He is always nearly nude to reveal the arrows of his martyrdom, and always handsome, young and muscular.

The role of the erotic or at least the tantalyzing is an evolving and involving subject. As the Humanist era progressed, scholars translated of ancient Greek and Roman texts. There emerged an obsession with Classical mythology that transformed the iconography of the nude. While most often depicting the male figure, it also enabled artists to portray the naked woman as a goddess, Venus being the most popular choice. For example, Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) portrays her standing naked in water up to the middle of her thighs and wringing her long wet hair.

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) Italian, about 1487–1576 Venus Rising from the Sea, 1520 Oil on canvas Unframed: 75.8 x 57.6 cm (29 13/16 x 22 11/16 in.) Framed: 103 x 84.7 cm (40 9/16 x 33 3/8 in.) National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003

This exhibition offers a broad overview of the Renaissance by including works made in Northern Europe and France to those of the more familiar Italians. The styles of each region are quite distinct but the appeal of the nude is widespread. One wall of the show is devoted to the nude in the landscape with paintings by Hans Baldung (Grien), Dosso Dossi and others that show the ways in which the artists were influenced by actual as well as imagined landscapes.

Jean Fouquet French, born about 1415–1420, died before 1481 Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels, 1454–1456 Oil on panel Unframed: 92 x 83.5 cm (36 1/4 x 32 7/8 in.) Courtesy of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen. Image ©–Art in Flanders vzw, photo Dominique Provost

It is not all a garden of delight. Paintings, prints and sculptures show acts of martyrdom in disturbing detail. Donatello’s carved wood statue is an emaciated St. Jerome scourging himself in penitence. One section of the show includes art that exemplifies the ways women were thought to use their sexuality to lure and disempower men. Another highlights work that idealizes women as the most superb of beings including one of the most riveting paintings in the show, Virgin and Child (1452-1455) by Jean Fouquet. The artist depicted King Charles VII’s lover in royal splendor in the celestial realm, offering her ivory breast to the infant while surrounded by cherubim and seraphim.

According to the modern artist Paul Klee, “Art should be like a holiday: something to give a man the opportunity to see things differently and to change his point of view.” Everyone can agree on that. Enjoy such a holiday with this gorgeous exhibition: the Getty at its best and a gift to viewers.