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Why is Everyone Naked in Old Paintings?

Welcome to the 234th insertion of DEMUR®, an analytical series highlighting the intricacies of the artistic world and the minutiae lying within. In this episode, we undress the history behind nude art, explaining why there are so many naked people in classic, ancient and modern paintings.

Throughout history, art featuring naked human bodies, or "the nude" has evolved alongside art in general. Shown through painting, sculpture or modern mediums like film and photography, the concept has stirred controversy since the dawn of society. Used as a caveat for strength and shame, the natural state has been a subject of debate and interpretation, mirroring the era's societal norms, religious beliefs and cultural values.

Due to the enormous amount of complex, varying factors, nudity in art has been regarded by historians as one the most essential subjects in the history of Western expression. Retaining thousands of case-by-case symbolic meanings, like the Stone Age's use of nudity and erections as a motif of fertility and the Greek's idolization of the naked male physique as a moral value of youth, integrity and masculinity, the incorporation of naked bodies in art is often a mere component of a work's overarching statement or story.

As a theme, depicting the exposed body has ignited tens of artistic movements like Baroque, Neoclassicism and Realism, all of which center around the human figure under differing lights. Neoclassicism, for example, focused on perfecting the Greek and Roman figures, whereas Realism emphasized the unidealized silhouette in a contrasting, naturalistic form. During the grips of Medieval Europe, however, nudity was often used as a portrayal of shame, descending from the Bible as told in the story of Adam and Eve, prompting many depictions like "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" by Masaccio (1425).

Providing context behind many illustrations and sculptures of the nude physique, it's not that older creatives were nymphomaniacs; the body simply held great power. Opposing today's standards, where nakedness is taboo, cultural standards were different, prompting many to fill their art with butts and breasts; I mean, the Greek Olympics were performed nude, after all.

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