Oil painting is the traditional medium for this genre, as the paint can be blended and layered to create realistic colours and textures; particularly useful when trying to depict skin and hair.
Whether subjects are clothed or nude, figure painting is one of the most enduring forms of artistic expression there is – using form, line and colour to express real human emotion. Let’s see how it has developed over time:
Believe it or not, the original cave drawings of men hunting or fighting set a precedent for the use of figure painting as a way of telling stories. The Ancient Egyptians had a methodological style of painting, and important figures were portrayed larger than others. The Romans continued to focus on storytelling and religion in their art, regarding figure painting as high an art form as sculpture; although not as many paintings have survived.
The use of religious imagery remained constant through the medieval era, and although this continued during the Renaissance period, styles soon began to change. In Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) created more detailed and realistic representations, adopting the sfumato style as a way of shading.
Da Vinci used his knowledge of human anatomy to sketch the Vitruvian Man (1490), and later iconic paintings such as The Baptism of Christ (1475) and Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486). Meanwhile, Michelangelo adorned the Sistine Chapel in Rome with The Last Judgement (1535-41) and scenes from the Book of Genesis – of which The Creation of Adam is the most famous. The sheer variety of figures and poses, both clothed and nude, demonstrated his skill in depicting the human form – as well as a fascination with the male physique.
Another contemporary was Sandro Boticelli (1445-1510), who also contributed to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and whose work The Birth of Venus (1486) remains one of the most iconic female nudes of all time.
16th and 17th Century
In the 16th century, Mannerist painters reacted to the harmonious ideology of Renaissance work by creating images with more tension and imbalance. Florence-born Agnolo Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (1545) is a notable example of this style, as is Gabrielle D’Estrees and One Of Her Sisters (1594), by an unknown artist. Old Masters of the Baroque period emphasised movement and sensuality in their figures, adding a greater depth of feeling to religious and classical imagery. Flemish painter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) used this to great effect in the nude paintings Venus before the Mirror (1615) and The Judgement of Paris (1639).
18th and 19th Century
The 18th century saw English Romantics such as William Blake (1757-1827) and William Etty (1787-1849) use religious and history paintings as a platform for their nudes.
Bringing a greater sense of realism to the genre, nineteenth-century painters such as Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) made waves depicting ‘ordinary’ people rather than heroic figures. Coubert’s most controversial works include Le Sommeil (1866) and L’Origine du Monde (1866), which wasn’t exhibited until 1988.
After this, Parisian artists Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) led the modern Impressionist era. Whereas Degas’ female nudes were painted from behind or looking away, Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass (1863) and Olympia (1863) shocked viewers with their sexual content and the direct gaze of nude female subjects.
Manet often used controversial subjects such as prostitutes and beggars – something that Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) was also inspired by. His fascination with dancers and Moulin Rouge patrons often had a sombre undertone, such as in Red-Headed Nude Crouching (1897).
20th Century and Today
Egon Schiele (1890-1918), a protégé of Gustav Klimt and an early advocate of Expressionism, was perhaps the most influential figure painter of the 20th century. His female nudes posed in confident, sexual positions – see Woman with Green Turban (1914) – and his disorderly style gave his paintings a raw energy.
Contemporaries included Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1918), with his modern reclining nude series of 1916-17, as well as Picasso (1881-1973) and Matisse (1869-1954). They also experimented with re-creating the female form in works such as Blue Nude (Matisse, 1907) and Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (Picasso, 1932).
A more recent artist said to be inspired by the Expressionist style was German-born Lucian Freud (1922-2011), whose nudes were graphic and discomforting – see Benefits Advisor Sleeping (1995). He once stated: “I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be.” Freud’s paintings act as a stark contrast to the idealised human form presented during the Renaissance.
More recently, the biggest movement in figure painting has been photo-realism, where artists such as Chuck Close (b.1940) use photographs to create highly realistic nude images and portraits.
Why not take a look at our Art and Craft supplies to try out human form for yourself at home.