The Willendorf Venus is thought to be the oldest depiction of the female nude and is dated at 30,000 to 25,000 BC. She was made to be held and is probably a fertility symbol. Here she is in all her glory:
In the 6th and 5th centuries BC the male nude was used in Greek art to depict the ideal hero. After the rise of Christianity the use of nude figures decreased and were only used in terms of shame as for example with Adam and Eve. In 15th century Italy drawing from life became more common practice but female models were not used. Great artists such as Leonardo became more and more interested in human anatomy. By the 16th century the use of nudes in art became more widespread with paintings by artists such as Titian becoming increasingly sensual.
We are very familiar with the 19th century paintings of nudes such Olympia (1863) by Manet. Note how she brazenly looks out towards her audience – shocking at the time but quite acceptable now.
It might be interesting to note that the use of nudes in art is mainly a phenomenon of Western art.
This takes me on to my next charity shop find. In 1994 an artist with the initials WP made a really beautiful monotype print of a nude. I think this is skilfully executed and has a peacefulness and beauty all of its own. It only cost £2.99 and I am quite tempted to keep it for myself!