As Kenneth Clark points out, "like a building, the nude represents a balance between an ideal scheme and functional necessities. The figure artist cannot forget the components of the human body, any more than the architect can fail to support his roof or forget his doors and windows. But the variations of shape and disposition are surprisingly wide" (20). The ideal human form as depicted in European representations of the nude divides into two main variations, one of which dominated art of the Mediterranean from Ancient Greece through the nineteenth century; the other appears in the art of the Northern Renaissance painters, including Van Eyck, van der Goes, Cranach, and Memling, who so influenced the Pre-Raphaelites — but not their conception of the human body. Here Pre-Raphaelites and Classicists alike followed the traditional proportions of the ideal nude which descended to them from ancient Greece.

"One of the few classical canons of proportion of which we can be certain is that which, in a female nude, took the same unit of measurement for the distance between the breasts, the distance from the lower breast to the navel, and again from the navel to the division of the legs" (20). In contrast although the typical Gothic nude of the fifteenth century has of the same basic components, but its has dramatically different proptionsal relationshsips among them. "The basic pattern of the female body is still an oval, surmounted” by two spheres; but the oval has grown incredibly long, the spheres have grown distressingly small. If we apply our unit of measurement, the distance between the breasts, we find that the navel is exactly twice as far down the body as it is in the classic scheme. This increased length of body is made more noticeable because it is unbroken” by any suggestion of ribs or muscles" (20-21).

Although the Pre-Raphaelites follow the dominant Western conception of the nude, individual painters follow their own conceptions of ideal male and female beauty. How, for instance, do the women in Burne-Jones's Pygmalion and Perseus series differ from the nudes painted” by Leighton and Poynter? How do works by earlier Victorian sculptors, such as John Gibson's Tinted Venus and Sir Richard Westmacott's Achilles differ from works by later sculptors, such as Sir Alfred Gilbert's Victory and Perseus Arming. Furthermore, how do works by women sculptors like Margaret Giles's Hero and Lady Feodora Gleichen's Artemis differ from Edward Onslow Ford's Folly or Derwent Wood's Torso?


Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Bollingen Series 35.2. New York: Pantheon Books, 1956.

Last modified 16 February 2007