A Brief History
On August 7th, 1908, the Venus of Willendorf, one of the earliest depictions of female nudity, was discovered in Austria.
In our previous article in this series, we had listed the top ten women famous for being naked, or who, at one point in their lives, had famously been naked. Of course there are many more prominent ladies who have disrobed in a public setting or who have been artistically represented in a state of undress. In this article, we examine eleven more such women.
For the latest installment in this series, the “Top 10 Black Women Famous for Being Naked,” compiled in honor of Black History Month, please click here.
1. Venus of Willendorf (approx. 25,000-28,000 B.C.)
Discovered during excavations in Austria in 1908, this little sandstone figurine is to date one of the most significant archaeological finds because at an estimated age of approx. 27,000-30,000 years, it is one of the earliest depictions of female nudity, or of any human for that matter. Widely presumed to be a symbol of fertility, the artist’s true intention behind her will most likely never be known with certainty. She does fit in a hand however, and this meant she could be easily carried. Maybe she represents the ideal woman of the time, a Goddess, or just maybe she was modeled after a real woman. Created when our human ancestors were hunters and gatherers, voluptuous (a.k.a. overweight) bodies were probably not common, but they must have existed for the artist to know with anatomical correctness how to chisel one. For this reason, the Venus of Willendorf, though her real name is lost, has earned her place in history and on this list as the first famous naked woman.
2. Agnès Sorel as the Virgin Mary (1422-1450)
The favorite mistress of Charles VII, the French king for whom Joan of Arc fought, Agnès Sorel is considered to be the first officially-recognized royal mistress and filled a role later known as “maȋtresse en titre,” the chief mistress of the King of France. She bore the king three daughters, and her strong hold over him and the subsequent power she exercised earned her many enemies at court. Her death at 28 was widely suspected to be a result of murder, and forensic tests conducted in 2005 on her exhumed bones determined the cause of death to be mercury poisoning. The high levels of mercury in her system, however, especially in the skin and hair, could have accumulated from the excessive use of metal-containing cosmetics. She also seemed to have been suffering from parasites, and mercury was often used to purge these from the body. Whatever the reason why she was exposed to such toxic concentrations of mercury, one thing is sure and that is that her beautiful and semi-nude image was recorded for posterity by the contemporary painter Jean Fouquet in his work of art Virgin and Child surrounded by Angels. In this painting, the Virgin Mary is depicted as a young, sexy, pale-skinned woman in tight, figure-defining clothes and with gravity-defying breasts that strangely resemble the silicone-enhanced breasts of today. It is a display of innocence combined with sexiness and motherhood, and Agnès Sorel appears in it as the Queen of Heaven, sitting on her throne. Maybe that is how the king wished to remember her. It also seems that her amazing and unnatural-looking breasts are one of first representations of what plastic surgeons would later strive to recreate.
3. Lucrezia Borgia as Flora (1480-1519)
Lucrezia Borgia was born into the morally corrupt Borgia family. Just how morally corrupt this family was is best exemplified by her father, Pope Alexander VI, who happened to be a cardinal bishop in the Catholic Church at the time of her birth. Her family’s ruthless and sexually depraved ways have been dramatized in the Showtime series, The Borgias. As the only daughter among her father’s four illegitimate children by his mistress Vannozza dei Cattanei who, by the way, had also had an affair with the future Pope Julius II, Lucrezia was married three times to powerful men to further the political interests of her family and divorced from them once they became useless. Not much else is known about her, though there are many scandalous rumors. These include extramarital affairs, babies born out of wedlock, incest, poisoning and murder. She has gone down in history as a femme fatale, for which there is absolutely no proof. Another thing often attributed to her for which there is no proof is the depiction of the Roman Goddess Flora in the painting Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomea Veneto. In this representation, a young woman with one small, boyish breast exposed coyly looks at the viewer. Painted at a time by which Lucrezia would already have given birth to six children, the depiction would not appear accurate, especially since she was once described as having a “bust admirably proportioned.” Flora was, however, a Goddess of fertility, and Lucrezia did have many children and eventually even died in childbirth. Perhaps she requested that she appear more masculine rather than feminine; she had after all once taken the place of her father at a Vatican meeting. At any rate, whoever or whatever she may have been, the painting is still often attributed to being of her, and since she is a very infamous and notorious woman, that is enough to put her on this list.
4. Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix (1780-1825)
One woman after whom a famous piece of art was definitely modeled is Pauline Bonaparte, younger and favorite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte. Though he loved her dearly, Pauline’s scandalous behavior caused her brother a lot of grief. Whereas most of Napoleon’s siblings wished royal titles and political power, Pauline seemed to be only interested in one thing, and that was sex. Whether married or not, throughout her lifetime Pauline had numerous lovers, and she loved to push the boundaries of the morally acceptable; she loved to shock, provoke and incite controversy. Once when her husband, Camillo Borghese, commissioned a sculpture to be made of her, she allowed herself to be depicted as the bare-skinned Venus rather than the fully-clothed chaste Goddess Diana whom he had envisioned. This sculpture became known as the Venus Victrix (Venus Victorious), and it depicts Pauline reclining semi-nude on a couch. Even the sculptor, Antonio Canova, was embarrassed as she modeled nude for him; his hands reportedly shook as he applied the clay to her body. Pauline’s husband was so enraged, appalled and humiliated by the final result that he hid the sculpture in the attic. Despite never seeing it, all of society talked about it, and the Venus Victrix solidified the public’s opinion of Pauline as a seductress and loose woman. Today the sculpture can be viewed at the Galleria Borghese, what used to be the family residence but is now an art gallery in Rome.
5. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy Lamarr is an actress who can attribute her early fame to being naked. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Austria, at 18 Hedy starred in the 1933 Czech film Ecstasy in which she appears fully nude, engages in simulated sexual intercourse and even acts out an orgasm for the camera. The latter two were firsts in movie history. Though the film did not appear in American movie theaters at its release because it was considered morally objectionable and dangerously indecent, Hedy still became known as “that Ecstasy girl.” When she attempted to make her break in Hollywood, studio heads made her change her surname from Kiesler to Lamarr so that the notoriously prude American audiences would find her palatable. For more on Hedy Lamarr and her life and accomplishments, please read her mini-biography in the History and Headlines article: “German-Speaking Women in English-Speaking Roles Part 1.” For those of you who would like to see a still shot from one of Hedy’s nude scenes in Ecstasy, simply watch the above Youtube video at 2:06.
6. Bettie Page (1923-2008)
Bettie Page, the “Queen of Pin-Ups,” started her career as a model for mail-order photographs with themes ranging from simple pin-ups to bondage and sadomasochism. Though she frequently posed nude, none of her photos depicted explicit sexual content. Her lack of inhibition made her quite popular though. Her jet black hair and big bangs which were a necessity to hide her high forehead made her instantly recognizable, and she became quite well known in the erotic photography industry, appearing in many magazines. After some images were sent to Hugh Hefner, he selected one to be used as the Playmate of the Month centerfold in the January 1955 issue of Playboy. In this know famous photo, Bettie is shown kneeling naked next to a Christmas tree, holding an ornament and winking at the camera. Later that year she won the title “Miss Pin-Up Girl of the World.” She also took acting lessons and appeared on the stage and on television. Her successful career came to an abrupt halt in 1959 when she became a born-again Christian and chose missionary work over lingerie, leather, whips and chains. Nervous breakdowns and periods of insanity followed. In the 1980s, after her image was used for the love interest in The Rocketeer comic book series, a cult began to grow around her, and to her own great surprise, she became famous again and went from penniless to receiving royalties. Today Bettie Page is considered the forerunner in the fantasy world of fetishes and bondage, and many contemporary artists such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Dita van Teese base part of their looks off of her.
7. Shirley Eaton (1937- ) and Margaret Nolan (1943- )
A sex symbol of the 1960s, Shirley Eaton is an English actress who gained her greatest notoriety as Bond girl Jill Masterson who was famously painted gold to death in the film version of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger. In the movie, James Bond wakes up after passing out from a blow to the head and finds his current flame lying nude on the bed, covered from head to toe in gold paint and dead, having suffered from skin suffocation! This image was so iconic that Shirley Eaton even appeared on the cover of Life magazine in gold paint. After Goldfinger, Shirley Eaton only made a few more movies before retiring to concentrate on motherhood. The effect this image has had on her life, however, can be seen in the title of her autobiography, Golden Girl.
The gold-painted body depicted in the opening and closing credits of the movie, as Shirley Bassey belts out the movie’s title song, is not that of Shirley Eaton, however, but that of fellow Brit Margaret Nolan who played a masseuse in Goldfinger. It was also her image and not Shirley’s that was used for advertising and promoting the movie. Opposed to Shirley Eaton, Margaret Nolan wore a bikini as she was depicted gold, and it was Margaret who appeared in Playboy magazine’s James Bond’s Girls edition of November 1965.
8. Vanessa Williams (1963- )
Famous singer, actress and former beauty queen Vanessa Williams famously lost her Miss America crown when it was discovered that she had posed for nude photographs. In her capacity as Miss America, Vanessa Williams was also culturally significant because she was the first African American woman to win this title. Penthouse magazine, however, rained on her parade and published nude and sexually explicit photographs she had posed for a year earlier while she was working for a photographer. Playboy had initially turned down the photographs because they did not want to jeopardize the reign of the first black Miss America, especially since she was already being targeted with death threats and hate mail, but Penthouse had no such qualms. Less than a year after being crowned, Vanessa Williams had to resign from her position; she obviously no longer represented the wholesome image expected of a Miss America, but she was allowed to keep her tiara and scholarship money. She was “succeeded” by runner-up Suzette Charles who was also African American. Vanessa Williams still went on to have a successful career as a singer and actress. Perhaps the scandal was just the kick-start her career needed; as an actress she has had roles on stage, television and film, and her cover of the Academy Award-winning song “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas was especially popular. The hit single “You Go and Save the Best for Last” has become her signature song. Despite all the controversy generated by the photographs and contrary to common belief, Vanessa Williams is still officially recognized by the Miss America Organization as “Miss America 1984.”
9. Sharon Stone (1958- )
No other movie moment has been paused as much as Sharon Stone’s leg-crossing scene in the movie Basic Instinct. Sharon Stone was not the first choice for the role of bisexual serial killer Catherine Tramell; several actresses had turned it down because of the requirement to appear nude. Confident and provocative Sharon had no inhibitions about exposing her genitalia, and her gamble paid off. The movie made her a star, and she has been a household name and recognizable figure worldwide ever since, and all this despite only having few particularly notable mainstream film roles of importance since then and those being in the movies the Specialist, the Quick and the Dead and Casino, all released between 1994 and 1995. It almost appears as if her continued popularity literally still rides on what is between her legs – even some 20+ years later.
10. Inna Shevchenko (1990- )
Though Inna Shevchenko’s name may not sound familiar to many, her image and the organization she heads are gaining in notoriety. Inna Schevchenko is a high-profile leading member of FEMEN, a Ukrainian feminist protest group whose members demonstrate topless against the sex industry, dictatorships, religious institutions and many other social, national and international topics. In 2013 she was granted political asylum in France, and she moved FEMEN’s base of operations to Paris. That same year, a new French stamp came out that depicted Inna Schevchenko as Marianne, the national emblem of the French Republic. Normally Marianne is modeled after famous French women, so there was an uproar when the public learned that a controversial Ukrainian woman was used as the inspiration for the image. The artists retracted their statements about the origin of their new Marianne, but the similarity is undeniable.
That concludes it for “More Women Famous for Being Naked.” If you can think of any other ladies whose nudity had a social, cultural or historical impact, please feel free to mention these in the comments section.
For the other articles in the History and Headlines series on naked ladies, please click here.
Question for students (and subscribers): Did you learn about the Venus of Willendorf in any of your art history courses? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Carr-Gomm, Philip. A Brief History of Nakedness. Reaktion Books, 2010.
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 1972.
Lloyd, Harold, Suzanne Lloyd, et al. Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D! Tess, 2004.