The Naked Portrait

Rab MacGibbon

The display Exposed: the Naked Portrait (National Portrait Gallery, 9 January to 11 September 2016) is a thematic survey of portraits from the Gallery collection in which the sitter is either naked, near-naked or where their nakedness is implied by what remains visible within the composition. It assembles fifteen works featuring a broad spectrum of sitters from the historical and contemporary collections, and represents a variety of media and artistic approaches. The earliest portrait is a 1670s oil painting of the actress and royal mistress Nell Gwyn, the most recent is an equally uninhibited photograph of Vivienne Westwood taken in 2009 by her frequent collaborator Juergen Teller. The only common feature of all of the portraits is the exposure of the sitter’s body. The display aims to stimulate visitors to engage in questions about identity and gender, the real and ideal.

The thematic approach is a departure from the usual gallery practice, which has a strong tradition of biographical displays on a sitter or artist or period-specific themes. Exposed is instead an investigation of a form of representation. It punctuates the chronological sequence of historical galleries and offers visitors an opportunity to view the collection in a different way. They are invited to consider the continuities and differences between the various representations and to speculate about the contexts, motivations and possible consequences of being portrayed unclothed.

Each portrait stands as a fascinating case study in its own right but two themes provide an overarching conceptual framework. These are ‘Bodies of Desire’ which examines the eroticised or idealised body and ‘Reclaiming the Body’, which explores the use of the body for politically engaged personal expression. Before reviewing the contents of each section I will pause on the deliberately ambiguous title. Exposure has harmful connotations – the lack of shelter or the revelation of something secret or shameful – or positive in the form of publicity for a person or cause. Both senses are present in the display in the various degrees of vulnerability and self-assurance exhibited in the portraits. Exposure has an additional resonance in the context of a display in which two-thirds of the works are photographic.

The subtitle, The Naked Portrait, positions the contents of the display in opposition to the most commonly encountered form of naked representation in art galleries, the nude. The relationship between the naked and the nude has been the subject of significant academic attention over the last half century. The field was largely established by Kenneth Clark’s The Nude (1956), which characterised the naked as a ‘huddled and defenceless body’, in contrast to the ‘balanced, prosperous and confident body’ encountered in the nude.1 In general the nude is defined as the naked body transmuted by art.  A genre that transcends the particular and quotidian reality of our flesh to create a vehicle of expression for any number of concepts and abstractions: ideal beauty, divine order, heroism, purity, or a host of allegories.

Clark’s praise of the nude was inverted in John Berger’s often-quoted pronouncement in Ways of Seeing (1972): ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.’2 Berger’s position has in turn been criticised by Lynda Nead, Marcia Pointon and others for his overemphasis of the unmediated purity of nakedness.3 Rather than signifying something beyond representation, they argue, the naked is subject to the same cultural and socio-political influences that affect the nude.

Exposed acknowledges this complexity and epistemological slippage while recognising a broad distinction between the idealising and formalistic impulses of the nude and the individualisation generally found in naked portraits. The point is illustrated by Charles West Cope’s sketch of the Royal Academician Abraham Cooper sketching a model.

Abraham Cooper by Charles West Cope, 1864, pen and ink © National Portrait Gallery, London

Abraham Cooper by Charles West Cope, 1864, pen and ink
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The anonymous naked female is posed as if an object for the attention of an exclusively male audience, her lowered gaze suggestive of passive disengagement, perhaps even shame. A degree of idealisation can be discerned in the differences between the hasty sketch to the left and the completed figure where vigorous cross-hatching has tightened the contours of the body into an elegant serpentine line. Nature has been ‘improved’ by art to conform to a tradition of nude figuration that extends back to ancient Greece and which was central to artistic training until the twentieth century.

The display contrasts this image with Vanessa Bell’s portrait of David Garnett.

David Garnett by Vanessa Bell, 1915, oil and gouache on cardboard, 76.4 x 52.6 cm © National Portrait Gallery, London

David Garnett by Vanessa Bell, 1915, oil and gouache on cardboard, 76.4 x 52.6 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The painting displays a formal interest in tone, pattern and colour but it departs from the academic life studies of the period through its consciously avant-garde style, it’s evident disregard for idealisation and the degree of implied psychological engagement with the subject. The clothed portrait tends to represent the public face of the sitter. Shorn of the normal signifiers of social identity and status, the naked portrait encourages interpretations based on notions of intimacy, privacy and the inner self.

The portrait was painted at a time when Garnett was living with Vanessa Bell and her partner Duncan Grant, and when both artist and sitter were sexually involved with Grant. A portrait by Grant from the same sitting shows Garnett as a broad-shouldered Adonis, Bell in contrast presents a ruddy-faced, slouching boy with alarmingly asymmetrical eyes. The gulf in representations suggests a similar divergence between Bell and Grant’s feelings about their subject. The final observation about the portrait is that it is unclothed man painted by a woman; this relationship sets it in opposition to Charles West Cope’s life drawing and to the vast majority of naked representations in the history of art.

The format of Bell’s portrait is shared by a portrait produced under very different circumstances, and the only sculpture in the display, Roubiliac’s marble bust of the politician Lord Chesterfield.

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield by Louis François Roubiliac, 1745, marble bust, 57.8 cm high © National Portrait Gallery, London

Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
by Louis François Roubiliac, 1745, marble bust, 57.8 cm high
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The classicising type is a typical example of elite society’s fascination with, and emulations of, ancient Roman and Greek civilisation during the eighteenth-century. However, Roubiliac enlivens the figure with a striking realism suggestive of an encounter with an actual living presence. This is achieved through the turn of the head and remarkably alert expression but also by the conspicuous aged flesh and bone of the torso. Such a representation would be shocking in a portrait of a politician today but at the time it was recognised by its audience as a mark of nobility and cultivation.

The portrait reminds us that naked representations are not automatically radical, subversive or morally suspect. In 1776 Sir Joshua Reynolds, the most influential cultural leader of the eighteenth-century, lamented the lack of opportunities for artists to realise their creative and technical potential. Only naked portraits could fully demonstrate the artist’s genius: ‘Art is not yet in so high an estimation with us, as to obtain so great a sacrifice as the ancients made, especially the Grecians; who suffered themselves to be represented naked, whether they were generals, law givers, or kings.’4

As far as Reynolds’s chosen medium of oil paint was concerned neither Westminster nor Windsor rose to the challenge set by their Grecian forebears. Reynolds’s statement contains a paradox: he argues that being represented naked is the most noble form of portraiture and yet the sitter must endure sacrifice and suffering to achieve it.

The hybrid nature of naked portraits, operating between the conventions of clothed portraiture and the nude, whether perceived as elevated or base, is the focus of the ‘Bodies of Desire’ section of Exposed. From the unabashed sexual provocation of Nell Gwynn to the referencing of the heroic male nude in Alistair Morrison’s photograph of Linford Christie, each of the portraits exhibit elements associated with the nude, such as the eroticised or idealised body. Their status as portraits, however, is reinforced by the complicity between the sitter and artist. It can be argued that images such as Nell Gwyn or the photographs of Helmut Newton obscure the fine line that exists between art and pornography. In reality, the division has never been absolute. The extent to which an image is considered as art or obscenity depends on the social and cultural context in which it is made and viewed.

Linford Christie by Alistair Morrison, Toned bromide print on Kentmere paper, 1996, 48.4 x 40.6 cm © Alistair Morrison

The final section of the display, ‘Reclaiming the Body’, features portraits made in the context of the reappraisal of the naked body in art during recent decades that has principally been brought about by feminism. The portraits contest or subvert established traditions of naked representation. The motivations are particular to each case but in general the nakedness is a form of personal freedom and expression. Female artists frequently use self-portraiture to express their individual and gender identities. These portraits also challenge the historical convention that naked female bodies are represented by male artists for the benefit of a male audience. Ishbel Myerscough’s Two Girls shows herself and fellow-artist Chantal Joffe naked but for a pair of earrings. They stare directly out of the canvas, reciprocating the viewers gaze in an attitude of mutual scrutiny. As both artist and sitter, Myerscough is the active subject of the painting.

Two Girls by Ishbel Myerscough oil on canvas, 1991, 58.4 x 99 cm © National Portrait Gallery, London

Two Girls by Ishbel Myerscough
oil on canvas, 1991, 58.4 x 99 cm
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Sarah Lucas shares this sense of determined enquiry. Her self-portrait Human Toilet II comes from a series of photographs in which she challenges stereotypical representations of gender and sexuality. The effect is ambiguous. Is it a visual pun on a woman at her toilette? Is it a parody of media and pornography’s reduction of women into a receptacle? Lucas leaves the work open to interpretation, encouraging the viewer to generate their own meaning.

Human Toilet II by Sarah Lucas, 1996, iris print, 73.8 x 49 cm © Sarah Lucas

This section of Exposed includes performance artists who have used their bodies as sites for self-expression and experimentation. A photograph of Leigh Bowery shows him stripped of his fantastical and transgressive body-distorting costumes during a sitting for one of Lucian Freud’s celebrated series of naked portraits. Freud is perhaps the artist associated most strongly with the genre. His paintings can be seen as portraits of the state of nakedness as much as of any one individual. The face is generally regarded as the focal point of identity but for Freud: ‘The head must be just another limb.’ 5

Gilbert & George perform for the camera in In the Piss from their series ‘New Testamental Pictures’. The artists’s aging bodies are presented in a psychedelic yellow soup which as the title implies is a microscopic image of their urine. The aestheticised presentation is at odds with the challenging, subject matter. The artists said of the work: ‘we are trying to make ourselves vulnerable in front of the viewer…this kind of picture in some way is showing the world what we actually are inside. It’s all the difficulties, all our problems, all our complexities.’6

In the Piss by Gilbert & George photo‑piece of nine panels, 1997, 226 x 190 cm © Gilbert & George

In the Piss by Gilbert & George
photo‑piece of nine panels, 1997, 226 x 190 cm
© Gilbert & George

As with Gilbert & George, photographs of Germaine Greer by Polly Borland and Vivienne Westwood by Juergen Teller cheerfully puncture society’s complacent expectation, reinforced by the media and traditional art, that nudity should have an age limit. By challenging socially-imposed boundaries, portraits such as these expose the artificial and arbitrary basis for stereotypes.  Juergen Teller has nevertheless denied that he intended his photograph to provoke: ‘There should be nothing shocking about it apart from that she looks so beautiful and that she’s so comfortable and open with herself… I think people should be like that.’7

Vivienne Westwood by Juergen Teller, 2009, c‑type colour print, 50.8 x 60.9 cm © Juergen Teller

Exposed reveals the sheer variety of naked portraits in the National Portrait Gallery collection. Whether flattering or honest, seductive or shocking, vulnerable or liberating, the portraits in the display indicate the innumerable reasons for artists to create naked portraits and for sitters to pose for them. Portraits traditionally convey identity, character and status. Freed from the cultural markers of clothing, naked portraits can additionally explore a wealth of expressive or formal questions and engage powerfully with social and political concerns.


Frances Borzello, The Naked Nude, Thames & Hudson, 2012
Martin Hammer, The Naked Portrait 1900-2007, National Galleries of Scotland, 2007
Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, Routledge, 1992
Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary art, Thames & Hudson, 2009
Marcia Pointon, Naked Authority: The Body in Western Art 1830-1908, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Tracey Warr (ed.), The Artist’s Body, London, 2000.


Rab MacGibbon is Associate Curator at the National Portrait Gallery. He is curator of the current Gallery display Exposed: the Naked Portrait. Other recent projects include Simon Schama’s Face of Britain, 2015, at the Gallery and Royals: then & now at Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire, 2014-15. He has contributed to various publications including The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart, Catharine MacLeod (ed.), 2012, and National Portrait Gallery, A Portrait of Britain, Tarnya Cooper (ed.), 2014. He previously worked for the National Gallery and British Council.

Professional info:


  1. Kenneth Clark, The Nude, 1956, p.3.
  2. John Berger, Ways of Seeing, London, 1972, p.54.
  3. See Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, Routledge, 1992, p.15 and Marcia Pointon, Naked Authority: The Body in Western Art 1830-1908, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.16
  4. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, New Haven and London, 1975, p.128
  5. Robert Hughes, Lucian Freud Paintings, London, 1987, p.20
  6. Robert Violette and Hans-Ulrich Obrist (eds.), The Words of Gilbert and George, London, 1997, p.290
  7. Alex Needham interview, The Guardian, 6 January 2013