In mid-fourth-century-BCE Athens, a sculptor named Praxiteles created a statue whose artistic and cultural impact has been felt across Western Art for the subsequent two-and-a-half-thousand years. The Aphrodite of Knidos is considered to be the first ever full female nude in ancient Greek art. She stands with one hand holding a towel, the other loosely covering her genitals. Clearly the goddess is preparing to bathe, and the viewer has stumbled into a private moment. In Greek mythology, a mortal who accidentally glimpses such a sight might be turned into a stag and torn apart by his own dogs in punishment. But the viewer here is safe to gaze. Aphrodite’s face is calm, and she has not spotted you.
The Aphrodite of Knidos entered legend almost at the moment of her creation. First-century-AD Roman writer Pliny the Elder described how the city of Cos, to whom Praxiteles originally offered the statue, was horrified at her nakedness and turned it down. Knidos, to whom Praxiteles then offered her, was canny enough to accept. She soon became a major tourism draw to the city where she was publicly displayed. Reports then circulated that she was modelled after Praxiteles’ rumoured mistress, the famous courtesan Phryne. In the second century BCE, poems were popularly written about it, such as this one by Antipater of Sidon, which imagined the goddess mortified at its lifelikeness:
‘As Venus looked upon the Venus on Knidos she said: “Alas! How came Praxiteles to see me bare?”
In a later story the statue even gains a death toll. According to legend, a young man had fallen in love with it, but, after the humiliation of being discovered attempting to physically consummate his love with the marble, threw himself off a cliff.
Thus, the context of production and historical reception of the Aphrodite has been deeply eroticised, ever driven by the male reaction to the female nude. In Classical Athenian society, women were barely allowed out of the home, let alone displayed so brazenly naked in public art. Furthermore, the shock that this statue created in the fourth century BCE stemmed also from its departure from established artistic traditions. As far as we know, the Aphrodite of Knidos stands as the first ever female nude sculpture in classical art, despite a long tradition of heroic male nudes. Compare her, for example, to the demure korai,which stand on the Athenian acropolis. Praxiteles was also one of the first ever Greek artists to make free-standing sculptures from marble, moving on from the traditional cast bronze. The realistic flesh-like qualities of marble made the sculpture’s exposed breasts and curves yet more shocking to its audience.
This statue began a long tradition of female nudes in Western art. Even aside from the many straight copies of the statue, her influence can be seen in later works. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c.1484-86) clearly borrows the modest gestures and contrapposto grace of the Knidos. Later artists begin to deconstruct Praxiteles’ model of passive subject and active viewer. Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1534) recalls the statue, but in a reclining position. This Venus, however, stares the viewer boldly in the face, and the hand on her genitals seems to touch more than hide. The slight smile of Titian’s model aims for a more intimate viewer relationship, as the painting was made for a single patron’s private collection. This painting has a mirror image in Manet’s Olympia (1863), though the model’s stiff pose and tense hand makes for a less comfortable image of Parisian prostitution. The uproar when it was first publicly exhibited in 1865 at the Paris Salon clearly proved that the shock of the female nude had not yet subsided.
The Venus Pudica, or modest Venus trope, that is seen again and again throughout Western art, can thus largely be traced back to this one statue. Yet all the artworks mentioned have in common a male artist displaying the female body with varying degrees of agency. The Aphrodite of Knidos is an artwork of wonderful grace and sensitivity. Its audience, however, has to contend with its role as an active—voyeuristic—viewer of an idealised and passive subject.
I’m Teresa Macnab, and I am acting as a Student Ambassador for the second cohort @ The Art Story this summer. I have just graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in Classics, during which I took as many art history modules as possible! I’m interested in the interaction between literary and art history to tell stories, particularly in the ancient world.