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The Nude Female

Updated on November 17, 2014
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Ancient Eastern Greek artists reserved female nudity for goddesses only while Archaic Greek artists only portrayed women naked if they were prostitutes.

The male figure was typically shown naked, but the female figure was always clothed. Although within fertility cults female nudity in art was acceptable, as these artworks may have been used for worship to the gods of creation. Scenes of intimacy may have also permitted the nudity of a female. Nonetheless, Greek artists always covered their painted or sculpted females in heavy drapery, thus hiding the female form:[1]

"The beauty of the female body was not explored for its own sake, and only the youthful athletic male body was considered an object of admiration in publicly displayed monuments. Statues of women that were set up in public, such as the korai on the Athenian Acropolis, are always modestly dressed, and the drapery itself becomes the principle for conveying female youth and beauty"[2]

Symposium Vase

Artworks that contained prostitutes were typically decorative vases and drinking cups found at symposium's for men. The Symposium vase (490-480 B.C.E) portrays three men and their hired female prostitutes.

One female prostitute on the left is undressing for her male partner while the man in the middle can be seen engaging in sexual acts with his hired companion. The last man on the right is playing a popular drinking game known as kattabos with his escort. "On these occasions, drinkers used cups like this one, and the scenes decorating the exterior would have provided visual entertainment and perhaps helpful hints to one's partner"[3]

The hetairai in the Drinking cup (520-510 B.C.E) display the ideal of youthful female beauty that dominates fifth-century Greek art: slim and graceful, with small and firm breasts...But young slender hetairai did not stay that way forever, and vase painters seemed to enjoy the ruthless caricature of the fat, aging, and toothless prostitute forced to make up for her lost beauty with other skills [Detail of a symposium vase 500 B.C.E][4]


Drinking Cup

The nudity of the women in all three vases symbolically represent that these women were not considered respectable within Athenian society.[5] However, they could gain respect if they partook in household activities such as spinning and weaving.[6]

"The lives of Athenian prostitutes, both at work in the company of male clients and at home among themselves, are best documented by hundreds of red-figure vase paintings from the late sixth century to the late fifth. These make it clear that most hetairai were hired for entertainment, companionship, and sex at a symposium, or men's drinking party.” Hetairai were professional and well trained sexual entertainers. [7]

Overall, to show a female completely nude within Greek art meant that the artist was typically portraying a prostitute, sexual entertainer, or slave meaning that the naked females were of low class and unworthy to mingle with established Greek women. Female nudity was symbolic of sexual prowess and immorality, which was considered punishable in ancient Greece. “When a female was depicted in the nude it was usually to denote slave girl, courtesan, or 'call girl' status. There existed a general banning or nonacceptance of the female nude in most works.”[8]

However, showing men naked within art was very common and normal. A nude depiction of the male figure showed power, dominance, athleticism:

“The need to justify female nudity while male nudity was considered commonplace already reflects Greek ideas about gender. For a man to appear naked conferred his power, his strong body and equally strong mind, while for a woman to appear naked would be indecent and confer immodesty. It is important to remember that the ancient Greeks viewed man and woman as dichotomies”(Huang).[9]


From the period of 600 to 340 BC, art historians have deduced that is was considered scandalous to depict a female nude within art. Women in Greek art were always covered head to toe, with only the outline and drapery of clothing hinting at the female form.

However, an innovative artist by the name of Praxiteles, realized that in order to create an artwork that portrayed a female completely nude, he would need to have a good excuse. This means that he could get away with depicting a woman fully nude if she happened to be a goddess. More specifically, a goddess love and sexuality, also known as Aphrodite:[10]

"The first experiments with the nude female in art are to be found on statues of Aphrodite by the sculptor Praxiteles in the mid-fourth century, such as the famous Cnidia [This was the first entirely nude female statue in Classical history]

The choice of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexual desire, is of course not accidental, and no other female divinities were shown nude. Even Aphrodite's nudity is always motivated by a narrative element to mitigate the exhibitionist quality and overt eroticism of what must at first seemed a shocking exposure"[11]

The statue of Aphrodite is shown bathing nude and covering her pubis. She is unaware of the viewer's presence and her vulnerability makes the viewer feel as though they are violating her privacy. This sculpture was a liberating piece of art as it allowed other artists to produce nude female pieces and eventually Greek society became accepting of nude women in art. The impact Praxiteles naked statue of Aphrodite had was immense.[12]

Cnidian Aphrodite

“For the representation of his own goddess of love he seems to have adapted the nudity of her eastern counterparts, Ishtar and Astarte. Yet Praxiteles statue remained totally Greek in concept, and not only in its modeling and carving technique. With her broad hips and small rounded breasts the Knidian Aphrodite indeed presented a new erotic ideal, and a new image of femininity, but her figure remains a clear document of the taboo on female nudity in Greek art, even more so than the clothed Aphrodites of preceding centuries” [13]

Praxiteles statue of Aphrodite is said to contain masculine, athletic qualities, rather then soft, feminine details. In the eighth through seventh century B.C.E it was common to see females in art being portrayed as youthful and slender, especially in a nude depiction. These qualities were considered to be the ideal Athenian women. Once a female became plump and developed wrinkles through age, she was no longer desirable. However by the third century B.C.E the viewer can see a change in the Greek standards for beauty:

"The High Hellenistic Aphrodite is fleshy and emphasizes certain feminine features such as wide hips, large buttocks, and in the crouching pose, creases in the Rubensesque torso [for example: Statue of crouching Aphrodite]. It is not certain whether this awkward pose was intended to be erotic or unflattering, or simply to explore the reaction of the body to certain movements that had been neglected in Classical sculpture.” [14]

Crouching Aphrodite

The shift from using nudity for Greek women in art as a tool of shame or to represent a degrading life such as being a sexual entertainer or prostitute took a dramatic turn when Praxiteles made a bold move to show women in a fresh light.

Through his artistic depiction of the female body women could be portrayed in art as something beautiful and admirable, rather than viewed as disgraceful. Not only did Greek art make leaps and bounds when it came to the depiction of a naked woman, but the viewer notices changes in the characteristics of various female forms and sculptures based on the origin of the art.

For instance, the culture of Athena valued women that were slender and lean. To them that was beautiful. However, overtime that changed as the Greeks began to appreciate a woman's body as it naturally was. Meaning that full breasts, plumpness, or signs of aging were considered beautiful.

Time and the act of bearing children would change a female's body and art, especially sculptures, were created to represent that. All of this came about because of Praxiteles, thus forever changing Greek art and the course of art history from that first sculpture to now.

Works Cited

[1] Jose Villarreal. "The Beautiful Body in Ancient Greece." Art Daily. 18 October 2012. <http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=11&int_new=58376#.UUDJLqLQ2E0 >

[2] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 173

[3] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 116

[4] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 118

[5] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 118

[6] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 115

[7] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 116

[8] Sabina Saimee. "School of Architecture and Allied Arts Blog." Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art: A Lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit. 31 October 2012. <http://aaablogs.uoregon.edu/blog/2012/10/31/nudes-and-nudities-in-greek-art-a-lecture-by-dr-jeffrey-hurwit/> (13 March 2013)

[9] Melissa Huang. "Greek Portrayls in Classical Greek Statuary." What Is Talent? Musings on Art and Gender. 2011. <http://melissahuang.com/2011/12/21/gender-portrayals-in-classical-greek-statuary/> 13 March 2013

[10] Sabina Saimee. "School of Architecture and Allied Arts Blog." Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art: A Lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit. 31 October 2012. <http://aaablogs.uoregon.edu/blog/2012/10/31/nudes-and-nudities-in-greek-art-a-lecture-by-dr-jeffrey-hurwit/> (13 March 2013)

[11] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 173-74.

[12] Sabina Saimee. "School of Architecture and Allied Arts Blog." Nudes and Nudities in Greek Art: A Lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Hurwit. 31 October 2012. <http://aaablogs.uoregon.edu/blog/2012/10/31/nudes-and-nudities-in-greek-art-a-lecture-by-dr-jeffrey-hurwit/> (13 March 2013)

[13] Zainab Bahrani. Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia. (London: Routeledge, 2001) p. 75

[14] Helene Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H.A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. (Elaine Fantham, New York: Oxford UP, 1994) p. 176.

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    • Chelsey Reisinger profile image
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      Chelsey Reisinger 2 years ago from York, PA

      Thank you so much! Your positive feedback and supportive words mean a lot to me. I am so glad you enjoyed my work. I truly appreciate your kindness and I thank you for taking the time to share with me your thoughts.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      This is an interesting and informative hub Chelsey, with clear detailing of how Greek attitudes to the female form changed over the centuries. Not an easy subject to write about, so not many will know very much about this aspect of Greek culture and art. A useful video too. So well done Chelsey. I learned something! Alun