Art, Beauty, and Meaning

Nudity in art (and elsewhere)… teaching art appreciation to students, and related random ramblings:
To some people, this is a no-brainer and only neanderthols and tightly repressed puritans take issue with it. To others, this is a no-brainer, and no Christian ever lets their children see nudity in art and anybody who thinks otherwise just doesn’t know their Bible or is a hedonist.
To a lot of others there is a huge area of in between. Plenty of people have quite decided opinions about all the mistakes the people on the other side are making.

In our case, we were totally relaxed and laissez faire about nudity until the time a certain 3 year old paused, looked at her father and made an embarrassing and humiliating observation and he looked at me and said, “Yah, I am done being a hippy.” or something to that effect. So he was more careful about being dressed in front of the kids, but I didn’t worry about it one way or the other. And I still didn’t make any sort of an issue of it (nor did he) when it came to art in books and museums. However, in spite of all the people with firm opinions along the lines of ‘if you don’t make a big deal out of it, the kids won’t either,’ my kids did make a big deal out of it. They tittered and giggled and pointed and stage whispered “Mommy, he’s NAKED,” or “Mommy, they are showing their bottoms!” and they wouldn’t stop.

And I began to think that maybe, just maybe, not every example of nudity in art was necessarily neutral, and not every single work needed to be seen by my tittering brood at just that point in time.
AS for the neutrality…
The Fouquet Madonna ( mistress to Charles VII of Francis,  and woman who scandalized the court with her revealing dress)

Francis Schaeffer discusses that
one in _How Should We Then Live_.
He says, “The girl was shown with one breast exposed, and everybody who
knew the situration knew that this was apicture of the king’s mistress,
Agnes Sorel. Was this the Madonna about to feed her baby? No, the painting
might be titled The REd Virgin, but the girl was the king’s mistress; and
when one looked at the painting one could see what the king’s mistress’s
breast looked like….
“When in the Renaissance Mary was painted as a real person, this was an
advance over the representations of Mary in the earlier age, because the
Bible tells us that Mary was a real girl and that the baby Jesus was a real
baby. But now not only was the king’s mistress painted as Mary with all of
the holiness removed, but the meaning, too, was being destroyed….
“Let us now look at another aspect of art to show that humanism had taken
over. In the Academy in FLorence is Michelangelo’s great room….
[David] has few equals in the world. Michelangelo took a piece of marble so
flawed that no one thought it could be used, and out of it he carved this
overwhelming statue. But let us notice that the David was not the Jewish
David of the Bible. David was simply a title. Michelangelo knew his
Judaism, and in the statue the figure is not circumsized….
“The David was the statement of what the humanistic man saw himself as being
tomorrow!” page 68-72

The REd Virgin is a technically lovely painting. It shows talent, skill,
and beauty. But just because something can be done, and done very well
indeed, that is not a good enough argument that it should be done, or that I
should look at it.
The Red Virgin was a known person, and a known immoral one at that (the king she consorted with was worse
Everybody knew that. Everybody knew who she was and what she did. I’m not
sure one could creditably argue that the painter or the viewers saw this as
some glorified, mystical sort of beautiful human body thing apart from
usual, ordinary, sometimes sordid way people view human bodies, especially
of mistresses.

Consider Manet’s Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (the one with two women, one nude, one scantily clad having a picnic at the park with two fully dressed, modern young men). This
painting wasn’t intended to show the beauty of the human figure- to show
some idealized version of the metaphysical beauty of a nude human body
devoid of any earthy, physical meaning. It was intended to shock, and it
did! This painter’s contemporaries knew exactly what he intended by his painting, and it wasn’t just to demonstrate the beauty of the human body on
a level with, say, the beauty of a good apple or a sleek cat or a lovely

On the other hand, nudity in art is a fact of life. If I ever wanted to go to
a museum with my children, they were going to have to get over it. So I covered
the pics up at home, telling them they were being silly, or making a big deal
out of nothing, and they needed to learn to walk past the nekkid people in a
painting at a museum without giggling and pointing. That’s part of being a
grown-up, and they would, God willing, be grown up some day. (and they are!)

Until they quit the silliness over it, in my own books I sometimes used white-out, which I preferred to markers, because it doesn’t bleed through, and when it came to library books I preferred stamp hinges and a bit of paper over everything else except maybe stick-it notes. Stamp
hinges are small bits of wax paper looking things that stamp collectors use.
You moisten it and stick it the page, and then you dampen the top and stick a
bit of paper to that. The virtue of these is that they are intended at some
date to be removable (in case the stamp collector wants to trade or sell his
stamp) so they do NO damage to the book. Then I could tell my children that I might be able to take off the little cover up piece of paper some day, or they could do it themselves whenever they grew up enough to stop the giggling and pointing.
So then I only felt like a temporary vandal=)

One day we happened to go the library and my then 16 y.o. picked out
a *lot* of art books. One of them she got was a little jewel, and it appears
to be part of a series.
It is called _Degas by Degas_, edited by Rachel Barnes, and the series is “Artists by Themselves.” IT was published by Knopf in 1990, although it was
originally published in Great Britain by Webb and Bower, Limited. ISBN is

Every other page is a print of Degas’ work, either a sketch or a finished
painting, and one or two photos of his statues. Opposite each illustration
is a quote of Degas’, sometimes from his journal, sometimes from letters,
sometimes from conversations he had that others wrote down. It is like a
little window into the painter’s thoughts.

So, I was greedily reading through it, telling my daughter to wait, wait,
wait, I’ll be done in a minute, and I came across this quote about his
painting “Woman Leaving Her bath:”

“See how different the times are for us; two centuries ago, I would have
painted ‘Susannah Bathing,’ now I just paint ‘Woman in a Tub.’

I thought that a very apt illustration of Francis Schaeffer’s point about
art and meaning. Or there’s this one:

“What use is my mind? granted that it enables me to hail a bus and pay my
fare. But once I am inside my studio, what use is my mind? I have my
model, my pencil, my paper, my paints. My mind doesn’t interest me.”

Oh, this was interesting, too,

” Oh! Women can never forgive me; they hate me, they can feel that I am
disarming them. I show them without their coquetry, in the state of animals
cleaning themselves!”

*Well!* I must say!!! Hmmph! ..>grin<

OTOH, I thought this quote a very good illustration of a CM concept,

“It is all very well to copy what you see, but is much better to draw only
what you still see in your memory. This is a transformation in which
imagination collaborates with memory. Then you only reproduce what has
struck you, that is to say the essential, and so your memories and your
fantasy are freed from the tyranny which nature holds over them. That is
why pictures made in this way by a man who has cultivated his memory,
knowing both the old masters and his craft well, are practically Always
remarkable. Look at Delacroix.”

For the younger children, it’s enough just to introduce them to artists briefly- a few outlines of their lives and time period, a look at at least six paintings in a row by those artists- the easy CM way- look at it, turn it over and describe it from memory.  Leave it around to look at again, and a week later introduce the next one, and repeat.  Over time they notice what they like and don’t like and what artists have in common.

For older students you can go more in dept into art history and criticism.

For a good course of art history and art appreciation in high school, I don’t think you
could do better than to get Francis Schaeffer’s _How Should We Then Live?_
IT is fantastic, especially in the earlier time periods. I feel it gets a
little weak or shallow from about the Impressionists on, but it’s an
excellent resource. There is a book and a video set. The book is great,
and has more information than the videos, but of course, the videos have
more visual oomph. We had both. A very effective approach would be to have your student (and you!)
watch a video, read the corresponding chapter(s) in the book, narrate, then
watch the next one. It would take an entire school year to do this properly, but it will be very deep.
I sometimes picked up Time Life Library of Art Books, The World of Bruegel,
Delacroix, and The World of Michelangelo. and so on.  I got mine at thrift shops for
3.00 each. I really like these because the first
third or so of the books is about other artists whose ideas and techniques
influenced that artist (does that make sense?). Of course, they do have
lots of those lewdy nudies;-P

There are other good resources to suggest- we used other things ourselves (including the Janson book), but Schaeffer’s is, IMO, the best of the lot for depth of meaning and insight.


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  1. Cindy
    Posted June 15, 2018 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    We’re pretty careful about nudes, but they’re not automatically forbidden. Michelangelo’s David is kind of important. My oldest, when he was about 7, went through several of my art books and put underwear-shaped pieces of electrical tape on all the nude forms. He was bothered that they didn’t have clothes. I laughed and left them on. I thought it was adorable that he actually took the time to cut out underwear shapes. Children usually have some natural modesty, and I don’t think we’re helping them if we try to make them overcome that. It’s protective in a world of predators.

  2. Friederike Lehrbass
    Posted July 5, 2018 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Im original from Germany,where nudity is a little bit more liberal than in the US, which ahs good and bad sides. But my husband is from North America. but what’s funny is that my son is much more conscious and modest about that aspect, then my daughter…Hmm sure interesting. But nutidy in art for most doesn’t bother us, not that we like it really, but I don’t make a big deal out of it and it’s not a big deal for the children either.Though seeing a naked man in Germany on the side of meadow was another thing they all laughed and giggled…lol…

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