4 Part Lecture Series
View Time: 52 Minutes

The lesson is organized around a 4 part lecture series on the history of the nude in Western art. The lecture begins with the question, originally posed by the art historian Linda Nochlin, “Why have there been no great women artists?” It’s a question that requires thinking about the ways that women have been excluded from the art studios, artists’ guilds, and art schools that make artists great. It’s a question that also requires us to pay attention to the ways that women have been included in the field of art—largely as models, muses, and as figures to be looked at. Click or tap the images below to view the first, second, third, and fourth part of the presentation.

In the first part of this lecture, you’ll be introduced to some well known women painters who have been added to the canon of art. In the field of art, as in the field of literary studies, great works, artists, and authors are often identified and included in formal or informal canons. In Western art history, the canon has rarely included women artists – and it has rarely included artists of color or from outside Europe and its colonies. This lecture will introduce you to several women artists who have been drawn into the canon through the work of feminist art historians.


In the second part of this lecture on feminist art history, we explore some of the ways that women have been excluded from the field of art. Drawing on the work of preeminent feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, we will come to a fuller understanding of the ways that women were prevented from full participation in art education.


Here, in the third part of this lecture, we explore several examples of representations of women in the history of art. The focus of this lecture is on the nude female figure painted by great male painters. The lecture draws on the scholarly arguments of John Berger, who wrote in a 1972 book called Ways of Seeing, to argue that paintings of nude bodies alert us to sexual politics of desire and looking. In this section, you’ll be introduced to concept of the male gaze, which is the BIG IDEA for this lesson.


BIG IDEA: The Male Gaze

The male gaze is a concept that is credited to the work of feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey, but is also very much indebted to ideas shared by John Berger in Ways of Seeing. For Berger, it was vital to recognize that art and other forms of visual culture—he examines nudes from the canon of Western art as well as images of women and men in advertisements—were political. In other words, images do not simply reproduce reality, they tell stories about the world, and the stories that they often—though by no means always—reproduce power relations.

Writing about the sorts of nudes we’ve just looked at in the third section of the lecture on art, Berger points out that women’s bodies are painted in ways that place them on display to the viewer. The viewer is assumed to be male and heterosexual and willing to participate in the objectification of women’s bodies. Importantly, Berger draws lines of connection between classical painting, advertisements, and women’s experiences of being objectified in the world. Men act, he explains, and women appear.

Mulvey puts it this way:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active (male) and passive (female). The male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure.

Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Screen, 1975, pp. 62

Mulvey offers the neologism “to-be-looked-at-ness” to describe the ways that mid twentieth century Hollywood films regularly placed female bodies on the screen for little reason other than to be looked at. She says that women in these films connote to-be-looked-at-ness; this is a phrase that we can certainly apply also to the female nudes discussed above.

Vitally, for both Berger and Mulvey, the sexual politics of visual representation is not confined to the canvas of a painting, or to the screen on which we watch a film. In a world in which we constantly see images of women whose bodies are passively offered up as objects of the gaze, it is not unusual for women to begin to experience themselves as objects of the gaze. Berger says that men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at. To-be-looked-at-ness, and its corollary the male gaze, is often used as a way to explain the pervasive feeling that so many women have of being looked at—as they walk down the street, or order a coffee, or sit in a classroom. It’s important to note that the male gaze is not a style of looking that particular men engage in; it is a broader idea about the way in which looking itself is structured along gendered lines.

Finally, in this fourth and last part of the lecture, we see some of the ways that women artists respond to a field of art that has used female bodies for male fantasy. The paintings and photographs in this section of the lecture are all produced in the wake of the modern women’s movement. They use the convention of the nude, but in ways that disrupt the conventions of the male gaze.