Elisa Valenti: an ode to the female nude

Elisa Valenti in her studio

To talk about the female nude, I decided to co-write this article with Elisa Valenti, A New-York based artist which I was able to discuss with thanks to Instagram.

Female nudes
ⓒ Elisa Valenti

Elisa Valenti (@elisavalentistudio) is a self-taught artist. After studying fine arts and art history in New York, she obtained a Doctorate of Pharmacy.

She was a pharmacist for thirteen years and one day decided it was high time to heal people differently. She naturally turned to arts and focused on figurative painting.

Let me explain why I had an immense crush on Elisa’s works. I have been planning an article on the female nude for quite a long time. But as I discovered her work and got to discuss with the artist, I realised this article needed someone like her.

Elisa - studio

Through a beautiful flesh-like palette, Elisa Valenti’s paintings, drawings and staged photographies evoke her personal interpretation of beauty. However personal that interpretation is, her cubist-reminiscent style allows any woman to relate to her works, to feel empowered by her works. Indeed, if it is her own interpretation of beauty, it should be accepted by all and universal. Her message is strong and important: you are beautiful no matter how you look. “You are good enough”.

While there is a growing acknowledgment of the multiple forms of beauty, female empowerment is still a growing battle.

Therefore, who else than someone with such a powerful message to talk about the female nude?

Elisa Valenti on the Venus of Willendorf

Female Venus
Venus figurine dating to 28,000–25,000 BCE found in Willendorf, Austria; in the Natural History Museum, Vienna

Our discussion started with a text Elisa wrote about the Venus of Willendorf (for more information, click HERE). As you will read below, Elisa established a relationship between this figurine, our contemporary perception of beauty, and her work. Following Elisa’s text, we will look at the evolution of female nudes in art history.

“Through evolution, humans inherently learned to be attracted to various forms of “beauty”. It once meant survival of the species. Perhaps biologically, symmetrical facial features and pronounced body parts were the symbols of fertility or virility and considered the epitome of beauty. But as generations evolve, we are influenced by other factors besides our natural instincts. In the modern age, what we see and are conditioned to believe on a daily basis sculpts our current ideals.
My work looks to challenge that conditioning.
I was influenced by the Venus of Willendorf because my body resembles hers. And how that once symbol of beauty, fetish, and fertility evolved to our current standards of beauty- yet the bodies that resemble this symbol didn’t go away-they still exist. The paintings in this series and subsequently in all of my work, continue to pay homage to the robust figure- the ample breasts, round abdomen and wide hips of a once-revered symbol of beauty and perhaps shed light on a form that is not quite revered for its beauty or perfection in today’s age.
Perhaps my work will guide your eyes to see beauty where you may not have seen it before. .”

The female nude: an evolution

In the next few lines, I will try to give you a brief overview of the evolution of the female nude in art history.

From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Unlike the male nude (you can read all about it in my last article), the female nude has always been taboo. Indeed, there was (and sadly still is) a hypersexualisation around female nudity that did not exist for male nudes. That is why you cannot see the sex of a Venus: it was not accepted among society and often associated with pornographic representations. And it was the same during Roman times, even though it was more and more accepted. It was not until the reign of Alexander the Great (336 BC – 323 BC) that women started gaining more independence. Thus, female nudity in art started being accepted.

But the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages marked the rise of Christianity. As for the male nudes, the only times you could find female nudes were either for depictions of Adam and Eve, or depictions of sinners.

The Birth of the Female Nude

Boticelli, the Birth of Venus, 1485-86

Boticelli’s Birth of Venus sparked a new interest in the depiction of the nude. Indeed, it was the first full-scale painting to have a female nude as its central subject. From then, we can easily find a growing number of paintings depicting female nudes. The reclining nude started to become popular during the Renaissance with, for example, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510) or Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534). I also personally adore Corregio’s Sleeping Venus, dated c.1528.

Giorgione, Sleeping Venus
Titian, Venus of Urbino
Correggio, Sleeping Venus

But the important change pertaining to the female nude in art history happened in France, during the 19th century.

19th century France

The Academy was founded in 1768 and was the leader of the global taste. In this academic setting, the female nude was for depictions of mythological figures such as Psyché.

The Orientalist movement then allowed painters to move away from religious or mythological scenes. Artists shifted towards non-religious subjects and one of the most famous examples of these nudes is Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque.

Jean-Auguste-Dominiques Ingres, La grande Odalisque, 1814
Jean-Léon Gêrome, A roman slave Market, 1884

Yet, Ingres did not paint the most provocative Orientalist nude. Indeed, some of Jean-Léon Gêrome’s nudes are highly provocative. A Roman Slave Market, among others, shows how sexualised the female nudes were. The lens of slavery, through which women were painted, objectified them. As time passed, the female nudes got more and more provocative. Highly Academic painters started depicting their contemporary society by painting “Roman times”. Thomas Couture’s Romans of Decadence illustrates perfectly this aspect. Indeed, the characters are represented as coming out of what looked like an orgy of food, drinks and sex. From then on, painters starting freeing themselves from the Academy.

Female nude
Thomas Couture, Romans of Decadence, 1847

Manet’s Olympia, 1865

Kenneth Clark, in his Nude, a Study in Ideal Form, argues that Olympia goes beyond the simple representation of a nude. Indeed, Olympia shows the reality of Manet’s society.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865

Olympia revolutionized art history. Not only thanks to Manet’s style, but thanks to the subject matter. Manet chose to depict a prostitute, looking at the viewer like he is her next client. She is straightforward, confident, proud. But that is not all Manet wanted to argue in his painting. He also wanted to show to the public the reality of the French Empire and the inequalities present in the European culture pertaining to race but also gender.

With that in mind, and if the female nude has evolved since Olympia, I would like to leave it to Elisa to answer some of my questions relating to the female body in the arts.

Questions to Elisa…

The Venus of Willendorf is an Ancient work, a symbol of fertility and for all we know it may have been the representation of a Goddess. Today, as standards of beauty have changed and evolved, what do you think the Venus of Willendorf would represent if it was created today?

A symbol of rebellion. One that challenges beauty norms. A symbol of inclusion and freedom- that we all don’t need to fit into a standard form. That we can accept our features for what they are and not allow them to diminish our sense of worth. 

What strikes me the most in your work, in your self-portraits, is your ability to confront your spectator. You sit tight, firm and strong and I highly admire your self-confidence. How did you become so strong and confident in yourself? What was your artistic journey towards these self-portraits?

Feeling very insecure For many years lead me to naturally develop defense mechanisms. Feeling the need to prove myself was the fuel that fired my ambition to overcome obstacles. Those small wins lead to confidence. Failing and getting back up lead to confidence. Working through constant criticism builds confidence. Gaveling who and what you are and accepting it without excuses or defenses. Proving to yourself that the only person you need to impress is yourself leads to confidence. It requires work and support and courage to reach a positive level of confidence.  

What do you think is the point of view of society on female bodies and to what extent would you say your work is a reaction to that?

Female bodies represent so much in society. 

As the body of Venus was a symbol of fertility In the past, our bodies are a symbol of many preconceived notions today. Subconsciously, we are all judging each other based on looks, status, race, size, height. The female form in its natural state is on a level of beautiful equivocal to the bloom of a flower. In modern times, the body has been so processed and exploited for unnatural gain, a sense of that natural beauty is lost.  and with it, the confidence of the women attached to these bodies. The figures in my paintings attempt to remind us of the perfection that exists in the imperfections of the natural, raw essence of the female form. 

What would be your advice to our female readers in regard to their relationship with their bodies?

It is not easy, but it essential to drown out all the noise, unlearn the damage and limit the  consumption of all the companies and unnatural standards society places on women (and men). Our bodies are only a temporary vessel for a soul. Our souls purpose is to inspire, to learn lessons and to exude goodness onto others regardless of the vessel it inhabits. The beauty we should seek is the beauty that lies deep within us. When we learn to truly accept the imperfection that we exist as can we soon accept everyone around us. 

I wanted to write a conclusion to that article, but as I was writing it I realised that I could not. Not because I do not have the academic or writing skills to do so, but because I cannot predict what the future will hold for Women’s image. Causes that should not be some to defend in 2020 are still important ones we need to defend. But in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, I do not know what to say.

Fighting patriarchy, fighting for equal rights for women are matters of high importance. And I wish my readers are aware of this and fight for this on a daily basis.

I would also like to thank Elisa Valenti for joining me on this article. You can check out her work on her Instagram, and on her website! She is not only a kind person but a brilliant artist.