For contemporary feminists, the role of female nudity in Renaissance Art presents an extraordinary set of ethical contradictions. While formally beautiful, such use of nudity can be seen to reduce women to their sexuality and inherently perpetuate sexist ideals. The analysis of these works opens a discussion on gender politics, identity, eroticism, and the traditional roots of art history. In the following analysis I offer a case study from Palma Vecchio A Blonde Woman. I will use this work to serve as an example of the many areas of contradiction that emerged from feminist interpretations of female nudity in Renaissance work, and I will contextualize it with other relevant works. In full, I will discuss various discourses around women’s nudity in art, and the application of ethical principles as a determination to the contradictions they raise.
Gender Politics of the Commission and Men’s Gaze
To initiate any discussion of identity in art, it is first of all important to understand not the individuals depicted on the job, but the individuals responsible for its commission and the processes behind that commission. In the context of the case studies discussed in this paper, one should start with looking at portraits. As explained by Paola Tingali in her book Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, and Identity, “Portraits are increasingly being assigned to signify the status of living women, or to mark important events in their lives, or even to celebrate their beauty” 1 If this were true, one might easily believe that women were accurately and fairly depicted in portraits, and works featuring women were purely a celebration of them. However, this did not happen. Throughout the Renaissance, commission processes were dominated almost entirely by men. Regardless of the subject, women rarely commission any work, let alone work alone. In feminist discourse, this has broad and significant implications. Men are assigned to, and in turn controlled, the portrait industry, and almost all other works. In this way, it is clear that the ways in which women are depicted, the extent to which their identities are exposed, and the most prominent qualities that will be represented are all determined by men. In this structure, because men assign jobs, the feminine identity is determined not by the agency itself, but strictly in the context of the male gaze.
Here we find one of the most frequently used and important phrases in feminist discourse: the male gaze. Although this term is somewhat self-explanatory, I find it useful to establish a working definition of how it works in this analysis. I’ll be referring to the Male Gaze as defined by Edward Snow in “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems.” In this text, Snow describes the male gaze through a discussion of the 1863 Manet Olympics. He explains that the notion of the male gaze “also leaves out the hypothetical saturation of the viewer’s gaze. Perhaps even the hyper-masculeinization of the genre. Isolating the viewer in its guise … beyond this … fixing viewers in the viewing area, and defining the woman depicted strictly as the object of ‘her’ gaze. ” 2 It encapsulates the essence of the male gaze, in which men, as the chief commissioner and inherently the intended audience, ensure that feminine subjects are portrayed in line with men’s tastes and desires. The only aspects of women that are valued through art are those that appeal to male audiences, and which are not excluded.
Olympia (1856) by Édouard Manet
By limiting femininity to men’s gaze, women’s identities are often stripped of their mere sexuality, with works treating them as objects to be seen rather than people to be understood. This way of depicting women was strengthened through the political and social structures of the Renaissance, because portraits were often used as an expression of power or class. Tingali discussed how in the political structure of the Renaissance, society did not need portraits of wives and daughters as it needed portraits of rulers and dogs. For this reason, women are shown in portraits not for their role in society, but for the ways in which they “invite a difficult response through the use of clothes and jewels, through the direction of the gaze, which is sometimes inviting, sometimes evading the eyes of the viewer.” 3