The status of female nudity in Renaissance art poses an incredible array of ethical difficulties for contemporary feminists. While aesthetically pleasing, such nudity can be regarded as reducing women to their sexuality and perpetuating sexist beliefs. Gender politics, identity, sexuality, and the very origins of art historical traditions are all explored through the analysis of such works. A Blonde Woman by Palma Vecchio is the subject of the following analysis. This work will be used as an example of the various areas of contradiction that come from feminist interpretations of female nudity in Renaissance works, and it will be placed in context with other relevant works. In its entirety, I will address the various discourses surrounding female nudity in art, as well as the application of ethical concepts to overcome the inconsistencies that these discourses produce.

The Male Gaze and the Gender Politics of Commissions

To begin any discussion of identity in art, it’s important to understand not the people depicted in the piece, but the people who commissioned it and the process that led to that commission. One must begin by looking at portraiture in the context of the case study discussed in this paper. “Portraits were commissioned more and more to represent the status of living women, or to highlight major events in their life, or simply to praise their beauty,” writes Paola Tingali in her book Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, and Identity. 1 If this is true, it is easy to think that women were truthfully and fairly depicted in portraits, and that works including women were solely celebratory. This is not the case, however. The commissioning procedure was nearly entirely dominated by males throughout the Renaissance. Women rarely commissioned artwork, let alone works of themselves, regardless of subject. This has far-reaching and substantial ramifications in feminist debates. The portraiture industry, as well as practically all other works, was commissioned by men, who in turn controlled them. Men clearly determined the ways in which women were depicted, the extent to which their identities were revealed, and the most prominent attributes to be conveyed in this fashion. Because the works are commissioned by males, feminine identity is determined not by its own agency, but rather in the context of the masculine gaze.

The masculine gaze is one of the most commonly used and significant terms in feminist debate. Although the phrase is self-explanatory, I find it helpful to construct a working definition for how it will be used in this analysis. I’ll use Edward Snow’s definition of the Male Gaze in “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems.” Through a discussion of Manet’s 1863 Olympia, Snow analyses the male gaze in this text. He says that the concept of the male gaze “also leaves unchallenged the viewer’s supposed maleness.” It has the potential to hypermasculinize the genre. It anchors the spectator in the viewing place, and determines the represented woman strictly as the object of ‘his’ gaze.” 2 This embodies the core of the male gaze, in which males, as major commissioners and intrinsically intended viewers, ensure that feminine subjects are depicted in accordance with men’s likes and wishes. Only those qualities of women that appeal to male viewers are appreciated in art, while those that do not are omitted.

Female Anonymity, Female Identity

By confining femininity to the male gaze, women’s identities were frequently reduced to their sexuality, with works treating them as objects to be observed rather than persons to be understood. Portraiture was frequently utilised as a representation of power or status, and this style of representing women was supported by the political and social systems of the Renaissance. Tingali explains how, in Renaissance political arrangements, images of spouses and daughters were not as important as portraits of lords and doges. Women were therefore shown in portraiture not for their social functions, but for the manner in which they “invite a sensuous response through the use of garments and jewels, by the direction of the gaze, which at times encourages, at times evades the viewer’s eye.”