In all of Western art, there is no more highly charged subject than the nude figure. I make the point of saying western art because, with the exception of India, the nude plays little part in any other artistic culture. The roots of this fascination with the nude figure date back to ancient Greece and the idealisation of the classical regard for the merging of body and soul as represented by principally the male nude. Although there are a few highly regarded female nudes in Greek art, it was largely their Roman imitators who elevated Venus over Apollo in their sculptural favouritism. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the nude virtually disappeared in art. In Medieval art, a few highly stylised, semi-nude figures of Christ crucified exist, as well as a few religious works depicting Adam and Eve in a sinful context, and sometimes you see the nude figure in the occasional last judgement (provided the figures represent sin and shame). But in essence, the church chose to separate the Greek body and soul into two separate elements, one sinful and shameful, the other spiritual with the hope of redemption.
Most art scholars pinpoint the year 1506 as the time when a reawakening to the nude figure occurred in Renaissance art (though Botticelli's and some of Michelangelo's work predate this). That was the year, legend has it, that an Italian farmer, plowing his field, stumbled upon the buried fragments of the first century sculptural group known today as Laocoon (pronounced lay-OCK-o-wawn). Believed to be from the workshop of Athenodorus, Hegasandrus, and Polydorus of Rhodes, the work depicts a scene from Virgil's Aeneid of a blind "seer" famous for his immortal warning "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts" (as in the Trojan horse), and his two sons battling a sea serpent. Michelangelo is said to have supervised its disinterment. The newly discovered antiquity breathed new life not only into Renaissance sculpture, but also into the study of the nude body itself, especially as depicted under stress. The figures in Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling reflect this.
Raphael, especially, seems to have been influenced by this newfound emphasis on the nude figure, though in fact he painted few of them. Instead, he often posed figures in his paintings nude, then drew clothes upon them just before or during the painting process. This procedure carried over into the first art academies in Florence and elsewhere where the nude figure became the keystone of all art education. And even though the Catholic church gradually became more tolerant of the nude figure in art, there was no relenting in their persistent belief in the shameful nature of the naked body as an important root cause of sin. As a result, the nude figure was instead embraced by the growing secular taste in mythological subjects, and inasmuch as most artists and their patrons were of the male persuasion, the female nude virtually dominated painting especially from the sixteenth century on, at times, to the near exclusion of the male figure. Peter Paul Rubens' The Judgement of Paris of 1635 is a typical example.
During the eighteenth century, the overtly sexual, contemporary female nude, as seen in François Boucher's Reclining Girl (Portrait of Louise O'Murphy) from 1752, infiltrated the mainstream of art where it remained important in the work of Ingres, Delacroix, and others through most of the nineteenth century, reaching a blatant pinnacle in Manet's Olympia around 1863, until such time as Picasso and Matisse began using it merely as a pleasing shape or symbol, rather than a human figure with sexual overtones. Today, whether male of female, contemporary artists continue to de-sexualise the nude figure, often depicting it in such a brutally realistic manner - sometimes so grossly fat or thin, or stylised to such a degree, as to remove most if not all its erotic content - which has, in any case, largely moved on to the art of photography and its bastard cousin, pornography.