The Male Venus in Art History

Kevin Talmer Whiteneir


In the discipline of art history, portrayal of female flesh for viewership by men is deeply ingrained, but in recent years a shift has occurred. Today many artists are depicting male nudes, in sensual poses, inspired by Venus, the goddess of love and sexuality, which was rare before the 1970s. The Venus trope discussed throughout this paper will refer to the elements common in Venus paintings, a term which will be used for both overt depictions of the goddess as well as female nudes that are posed to evoke her visually. This trope is comprised of a sensual pose, usually reclining or resting, of an unclothed body that both explicitly and implicitly informs ideas of eroticism and sensuality while eschewing explicit narratives. Also discussed will be the appropriation of this trope for use in male nudes. The concept of the male Venus, which will be used to describe this growing body of representations, breaks away from more traditional modes of depicting unclothed men— commonly as athletes and heroes. In analyzing the male nude, this study will discuss the visual similarities of contemporary male nudes to female nudes from the past, as well as the fact that today male nudes often lack contextual narratives and simply present the body as a symbol of desire. This paper includes a quantitative analysis of female and male nudes in the canon of Western art history, culled from the approximately 6,500 illustrations in the five most commonly used survey textbooks. This analysis revealed that the number of male nudes peaked first in the Classical era and later during the Renaissance, while female nudes appear less frequently in antiquity and rose in popularity during subsequent eras. Today male nudes are on the rise, featuring elements that have traditionally been associated with females. These attributes include sexual vulnerability, as well as being the subject of an erotic gaze. To historically contextualize the prevalence of male nudes in recent decades, this paper uses a mixed theoretical approach, drawing on the disciplines of anthropology and art history, as well as insights and theories from the fields of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) studies and gender studies. In addition to the quantitative work, this study includes a qualitative analysis of one female Renaissance-era painting, Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538, and one contemporary male nude photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe, Jamie, from 1973. Ultimately, this study demonstrates that male nudes are becoming prevalent today—after having been in decline since the Renaissance—and shows that these varied depictions of male sex and sexuality reflect changing perspectives of masculinity and male beauty in Western culture.


Male Venus; Venus; Titian; Robert Mapplethorpe; Gay Artists; Gay Identity

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