There's an old saying, undoubtedly originated by a man, "Women...you can't live with them and you can't live without them." That may not always be the case in real life, but it has been a common thread insofar as the portrayal of women in the arts. Before the fourteenth century, few women, other than the Eve and the Virgin Mary had appeared in art since the ancient goddesses of antiquity. And, except for Eve, none of them were portrayed nude. The nude figure of either sex was considered shameful. Then, with the rebirth of learning during the Renaissance, there came a rediscovery of the classical nude figures of ancient Rome in both painting and sculpture.
But even then, the first nude figures by Donatello and Michelangelo and others were primarily male. Only gradually, as church domination of art and artists waned with the Reformation, did female figures, and almost always, nude or semi-nude, take hold. Predominantly, such secular females were of mythical origins (and proportions). Venus, the Roman goddess of love, was a favourite, followed by Diana, the goddess of the hunt and chastity, and then Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and the protector of warriors. Later, during the nineteenth century, the Mesopotamian myth of Lilith surfaced in both literature and painting. Then in twentieth century art, stereotypical females replaced mythical females.
From her rediscovery during the late Renaissance, up until the downfall of Academicism during the latter half of the nineteenth century, Venus has been the favourite of artists and their patrons alike. And why not? She's beautiful, amorous, seductive, and most of all naked...err...excuse me...nude. As artists tired of the religious restrictions placed on their depictions of Mary, they turned to Venus, perhaps because she was everything Mary was NOT. And, being a goddess, far removed from contemporary life, she was a relatively safe, yet erotic model of idealised feminine beauty and, most of all, neither virginal nor motherly.
Diana, on the other hand, was something of a paradox. While sexually alluring in her athletic prowess and physical beauty, she was often seen as being frigid. Yet her perpetual virginity only added to her sexual allure. This untouched and untouchable quality thus created a psychological tension that often made her far more intriguing than Venus to the psyche of male artists. And, given her mastery of a predominantly male pastime, she long held a special appeal to artists' wealthy (mostly male) patrons as well.
Minerva, however, was usually thought of as being sexually neutral. Yet in Bartholomeus Spranger's Minerva Victorious over Ignorance: Allegory on Rudolf II, painted in 1591, we see a hefty, thoroughly militaristic, female figure with nude breasts "to die for." While not nude, in fact sheathed in what was supposed to pass for armour, she might as well be. Her body armour, with its amusing, sixteenth century "miniskirt," appears to be literally painted on her voluptuous young body. The painting may have been a political allegory, but it's also quite obvious that, even 400 years ago, sex and politics were inextricably mixed.
With the figure of Lilith, we find that sex and religion are also intermixed. Lilith is described as a nocturnal visitor who consorted with men in sexual dreams. Goethe, in his poetic drama, Faust, was probably responsible for first mentioning her in modern times (early 19th century) while Robert Browning, in his poem, Adam, Lilith and Eve published during the 1820s, portrayed her as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. John Keats, around the same time, changed her name to Lamia and saw her as treacherous, beautiful, and a figure to be feared by men as a demon or vampire. Created at the same time as Adam, this mythical female figure was seen by the Romantics in nineteenth century England as the first woman in place of Eve. John Collier's Lilith in 1887 portrays her as a rather modern looking woman entwined by a snake which she amorously caresses with her cheek. During the twentieth century, Lilith has often been associated with the Women's Liberation movement.
But, even before the dawn of the twentieth century, artists such as Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Impressionists found little need for the mythical cover stories that had long been associated with female figures in art. In exchange for the covert sexuality of Venus, Diana, and Lilith, their females became "bathers" or just simply prostitutes. And though the German painter, George Grosz alluded to Circe from Ulysses and The Odyssey in his 1925 watercolour, Circe, the disguise is transparently thin. She's a vamp. And that's been the story throughout the rest of the past century as male artists have struggled, with varying degrees of success, to find ways to portray the female figure in their art as well as accommodate them in their lives. Only now, ironically, they find there are more female myths than ever before.