Before the age of selfies, there was more to nudity and eroticism than Kim Kardashian in a thong. Here are 10 saucy depictions of naked flesh, vaginas, willies, masturbation, and cunninglingus in art that stirred controversy when they first appeared—and continue to delight and tickle us in all the right ways today.
1. Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”
Dating circa 1490–1510, this detailed painting has more bare cheeks than a carnival in Rio. Known for his fantastical imagery, Bosch sure painted a lot of phallic symbolism into this work, which has frequently been interpreted by art historians as a “didactic warning on the perils of life’s temptations.” I don’t know about you, but this is one garden I wouldn’t mind finding myself in.
2. Titian’s “Venus of Urbino”
The early 16th century was marked by the realistic nude—just look at Michelangelo’s “David”—and this super sexy Venus with her womanly belly, come-hither eyes, and suggestively placed hand no doubt did her fair share of arousing. Mark Twain was so riled up, he called the painting, “the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses.”
3. Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s “The Swing”
This Rococo painting from 1767 may look innocent at first, but it actually tells a tale of an extramarital affair. Her husband is pushing the swing, but check out the guy in the bushes getting a peek up her dress. Yeah. I just read that sentence back. It’s all a bit creepy, ey?
4. Francisco de Goya’s “The Nude Maja”
Poor Goya. When he painted Maja—both in her birthday suit and clothed—the former became the first painting to explicitly show pubic hair and was labelled “the first totally profane life-size female nude in Western art.” At the time, circa 1800, the Catholic Church banned the display of artistic nudes and so Goya didn’t have the pleasure of seeing his Maja publicly displayed during his lifetime.
5. Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”
Wow. I first saw this on the second last episode of season 7 of Mad Men a few weeks ago and thought—pardon the pun—what an orgasmic work. I love Japanese shunga art and well, this is just so blatantly erotic. The artist was mostly known for his landscapes (we’ve all seen his famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa“), but obviously also had a naughtier side.
6. Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)”
I don’t think this painting from 1866 needs a description. The title says it all (and what a celebration of the bush).
7. Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon)”
We’re sure the brilliant, obsessive misogynist Picasso had plenty of ladies in Avignon… His 1907 depiction of five prostitutes in Barcelona is pure proto-Cubist erotica. What makes this work so interesting is the way Picasso depicted the feminine shape—angular and sharp, disjointed, and undoubtedly masculine. This painting radicalized traditional European painting of the time and remains one of the artist’s greatest masterpieces.
8. Gustav Klimt’s “Frau bei der Selbstbefriedigung”
Klimt gave us “The Kiss” and “Adele Bloch-Bauer,” but he also gave us a number of sensual, yet subtle works. This visceral painting of a woman pleasuring herself manages to look both carnal and understated—the viewer feels as though they’ve intruded on a private moment.
9. Lucian Freud’s “Boy on a Bed”
Freud painted his fair share of nudes in his life—in fact, he was known for his thickly impastoed portrait and figure paintings, showing people from all walks of life, from obese women to lesbian pregnant couples to nude men and their dogs. But I particularly like this simple line drawing from 1943. There’s something both innocent and direct about it. Freud drew this when he was just 21 and perhaps it encapsulates both his birth as an artist and his sexual awakening. Or perhaps it’s just a picture of a beautiful boy.
10. Roy Lichtenstein’s “Nude with Abstract Painting”
Andy Warhol may have pioneered pop art in the 1960s, but he wasn’t the only one good at it. His popular contemporary (and perhaps biggest rival) was Roy Lichtenstein, who produced pin-up style, cartoony works that were influenced by everything from comics to mass media. He also made a few nudes, as this one from late in his career (it’s from 1994) demonstrates. Lichtenstein’s work was often criticized for being “vulgar” and “empty” during his lifetime. We wonder what those same critics would say of today’s version of “art”—selfies of Kim Kardashian in a thong.