The nude is one of the most ubiquitous subjects in western art – and the most challenging and difficult to get right. The greatest examples were created in Renaissance Italy – notably Michelangelo's sculpture David and Botticelli's painting The Birth of Venus – and are among the world's most admired cultural creations. But poor examples of the genre – the outpourings of innumerable "life" classes in art schools – often prompt derision and scorn.
The celebrated English critic Kenneth Clark (of television's Civilisation fame), in his classic 1950s book, The Nude: A Study in Ideal, wrote: "The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition.
“The word ‘nude’, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.”
He also noted: “In countries where painting and sculpture were practised and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art.”
Two very different paintings of the female nude are among the highlights in forthcoming auctions and they carry startlingly different estimates.
The first, going under the hammer at Sheppard's auction on next Wednesday is Study of a Female Nude by French artist Paul Sieffert (1874-1957) is estimated at €12,000-€16,000. The oil on canvas, measuring 60cm by 80cm, probably dates from the 1920s.
Lucien Freud In a different league – in every sense – is a 1994 painting by British artist Lucian Freud (1922-2011) titled Benefits Supervisor Resting – which goes under the hammer at Christie's, New York, next month with a top estimate of $50 million (€46m).
Christie’s described the painting as “a life-size masterwork in the grand historical tradition of the female nude, painted obsessively with intense scrutiny and abiding truth” that revealed the artist’s “unique ability to capture the reality of the hum an form in all its natural force”.
The 5ft by 5ft painting is one of a series of four female nudes by Freud in the mid-1990s of the sitter – Sue Tilley, a local government worker from London and part-time artist's life model.
Christie's says Benefits Supervisor Resting "is regarded as one of the most remarkable paintings of the human figure ever produced".
Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie's, describes it as "a triumph of the human spirit, showcasing Freud's love of the human body".
Another painting in the series, titled Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, sold at Christie's in May 2008 for $33.6 million – a world auction record for a work by Lucian Freud. According to the New York Times, the buyer was Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.