Praxiteles, the son of Cephisodotus the Elder, was one of the most renowned artists of Attic Peninsula creating works sought after by nobles of neighboring regions. Praxiteles was commissioned to sculpt a cult statue for the Temple of Aphrodite of Knidos around 350 BCE and produced two sculptures one draped and one nude. The city of Ko purchased the draped version of Aphrodite, they believed the nude version was indecent and would be a poor reflection of their city. The City of Knidos bought the nude Aphrodite, unaware of the statues historical significance or its future influence on women in art that would follow.
The Aphrodite of Knidos was the first full-size, free standing nude female depicted in Grecian sculpture and it rivaled the idea of heroic male nudity in art. The goddess is depicted nude, standing in contropposto, and is famed for its beauty and ability to be appreciated from every angle. Aphrodite is holding the drapery she was once wearing in one hand while the other is used to modestly cover her pubic region, drawing the viewers attention towards her exposed breasts.
As a female, the introduction of the nude woman in Grecian sculpture should be an exciting advancement for women in art but leave it to a male sculptor and they will find a way to sexualize the female form. The way Praxiteles chose to pose Aphrodite eluded to a sense of false modesty. Depicting her as bashful sexualized her body and projected the idea that the female form was unequal to her male counterpart. The male depicted nude was unapologetic, never covering pubic regions, desexualized and to society very dignified. Right out the gate this depiction of the nude female presented the idea that women’s bodies were not to be respected in the same ways as man.
Scholars such as Nigel Spivey argue that this sexualization was intentional and Praxiteles sculpted Aphrodite of Knidos with the male onlooker in mind. Arguing that its fame derives from the pleasure both heterosexual and homosexual men got from viewing her. News of the nude Aphrodite in Knidos spread and the statue quickly became a tourist attraction for its modest nudity. The sculpture would have been polychromed, fully painted and was so lifelike men were sexually aroused by it. A story recorded by Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian satirist from around this time recalls, “The floor of the court had not been doomed to sterility by a stone pavement, but on the contrary, it burst with fertility..” (Erotes) and goes on to describe an incident involving a young male leaving a stain on the statue after having alone time with it. Aphrodite of Knidos brought fame to the City of Knidos and even the neighboring King of Bithynia offered to pay for the sculpture but the offer was declined.
The Knidian Aphrodite did not survive and is thought to have burned in a fire but before its demise it managed to change how women began being depicted in art through generations of the ancient world that followed. It established a canon for the proportions of the female nude. And many replicas and variations of the Aphrodite of Knidos started to appear throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world. These copies played with the over sexualized pose given to Aphrodite by Praxiteles. Some artists removed her hands displaying her in full nudity while others posed her covering her breasts to increases the sense false modesty. These copies can be found on display in museums all over the world. The British museum, the Paris Louvre and even the Venus Felix, a possible variation, is located in the Vatican.
The Aphrodite of Knidos is one of the most famous sculptures from antiquity and possibly the most famous to have come from the Late Classical period. Her figure was the first of its kind to display modest female nudity, a trend that sparked an evolution of women depicted in art through out western civilization. Her creation presented a shift from the once rigid design of the Greek Archaic Kore and the use of excessive drapery by the earlier classical eras. Aphrodite’s nudity and sexuality differentiated this statue from depictions of women in art from centuries past and greatly influenced the portrayal of women in art to follow. Said to have been the first 3D sculpture to represent the female nude. It opened up artists to explore and interpret the female pose leading to advancements in how women were depicted during the Hellenistic period and centuries to come. The creation of this sculpture is overlooked but once examined tells a story that still resonates with women of today. Despite the desexualization of the male form there has always been hypocrisy in the way women’s bodies are treated in comparison. An over sexualized depiction of a goddess, created by a man, influenced western civilization’s perception of the female form. What a statement that makes on women in art history.