There are nearly 300 art museums with significant collections in Europe and the U.S. and most of the #Art was made by men describing women without clothes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if all the leading museums took down these paintings, their walls would looks as naked as the women pictured. In his 1972 tome “The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form,” art historian Kenneth Clark said it outright: “The nude inspired the world’s greatest works.” A mere glance at the Clark Art Institute’s Old Master summer show “Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado,” tells the story.

The Prado’s nudes once belonged to the Spanish monarchs of the 16th and 17th centuries, Philip II to his grandson Philip IV. Their courts gave a prudish impression for validation from the Catholic Church, which saw nudity in art as a sin. Behind palace walls were paintings like “Venus of Urbino,” Titian’s depiction of a reclining nude woman touching herself and looking at the viewer while she does it, which is not unlike some centerfold spread in a porn magazine. Mark Twain called the work “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.” But it wasn’t all that distinct for its time. Titian not only painted a lot of such works for Europe’s aristocracy, but a lot of other painting greats did this, too.

In the eye of the beholder

For example Velasquez “Rokeby Venus” shows a nude woman reclining on her bed and gazing at herself in a mirror held by Cupid. Even centuries later, suffragette Mary Richardson got so upset seeing this work at London’s National Gallery in 1914 that she knifed Venus’ body multiple times.

To keep the Church from see such imagery, the royals kept them in private palace space called salas reservadas. In that way, the Spanish kings could indulge themselves and at the same time rule in strict accord with the Church. Even when the Prado opened this collection to the public in the 19th century, many of the works were still held in special rooms.

Prurient on purpose

How prurient were these works made for kings? Consider Tintoretto’s “Lady Revealing Her Breast,” which is clearly far from a wardrobe malfunction. The “lady” is pictured pulling open her clothing to expose her upper body.  With images like that and the other two dozen Prado nudes now at Clark Art Institute, one may wonder why French art critic Theodore Duret ever said of Renoir’s paintings, “I doubt if any painter ever interpreted women with a more seductive manner.” Duret forgot an awful lot of art history.

But while prurience in the Prado pictures can’t be entirely discounted, nudes, an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century, often had important things to say. When Delacroix painted a woman raising the tricolor of the French flag in battle in “Liberty Leading the People,” with her breasts bared, he was conveying the idea that Liberty is the mother of the land.   #Buzz