Art movements have spanned centuries, and the development and depiction of the human form have taken numerous approaches. Notably, different artists have illustrated the human body based on the ideologies developed during that era. Thus, it is essential to look at the past and analyze how artists from different ancient civilizations choose to depict the human body and how they rendered it, whether in painting or sculpture.
The depiction of the human form in art is seen as early as the prehistoric age or the Old Stone Age. During this era, art included cave paintings, shell necklaces, and human and animal forms. Artists used the human form to convey messages regarding their society. For instance, the Venus of Willendorf is a prehistoric sculpture of a female figure (Witcombe, n.d.). The artist’s emphasis was on the woman’s voluptuous features, including the face, breasts, and hips, which are interpreted as a depiction of fertility and capability to perform different duties in the society.
Egyptian art portrays the human body in a simple, 2D manner that utilizes a set of colors. As Glausiusz (2010) elucidate, ancient Egypt’s depiction of the human form in their art relied on principles inherent to the Egyptian viewpoint rather than the modern view. Their use of static, abstract, and formal nature of humans in many of their imagery portrays their approach as more naturalistic than Greek art. In their art, the human form was depicted from an extreme perspective, with large heads accompanied by drooping features, narrowing shoulders and waist, a small torso, a drooping belly, large buttocks, and short legs and arms, such as the one depicted in the painting known as Last judgment of Hu-Nefer (Principles of Egyptian Art, n.d.).
Near East art also embraced the depiction of the human form uniquely. Notably, rulers, such as kings, appeared in those arts due to their affluence and wealth that allowed them to pay for art (Cheng & Feldman, 2007). Though different artists adopted various styles, there were common characteristics in how they represented human figures. Usually, powerful men appeared in long garments compared to the workers who wore headdresses and wielded weapons (Cheng & Feldman, 2007). Additionally, their art showed men with long and curly beards to show their manliness or power. An ideal example of Near East’s depiction of the human form is the Stele with the law code of Hammurabi sculpture.
Ancient Greece is renowned for many artworks that remain appreciated to date. Greek artists employed an exquisite style in depicting the human body. Statues, both covered and nude, were used to appreciate the full beauty of the human body. Importantly, Greek artists provided rich details of the human body (Macaulay, 2015). For instance, the statue of Aphrodite of Knidos is an ideal example of the beauty and sensuousness of Greek art since it depicts the physical aspects of the human form in outstanding details.
Artists in the Ancient Aegean culture had a strong liking for marble and shapes. For instance, the National Archeological Museum of Athens preserved a figurine of a nude woman from Syros, demonstrating the beauty of Aegean art (Kleiner, 2013). Besides sculptures, Aegean culture also used paintings to represent their appreciation for the human form. In their paintings, men were represented as having dark features while women were painted with a fair complexion.
Since ancient ages, the human body has remained at the center of art. Through the eons, different artists have used their unique styles to depict the human body. While ancient artists depicted the human body as an appreciation of beauty, the same was used to show the customs and social structure within these societies.
Cheng, J. & Feldman, M. (2007). Ancient Near Eastern art in context: Studies in honor of Irene J. Winter by her students. In Culture and history of the Ancient Near East (Vol. 26). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Publishers.
Principles of Egyptian Art. (n.d.). Royal Society of Chemistry. Retrieved from https://edu.rsc.org/resources/principles-of-egyptian-art/1622.article
Glausiusz, J. (2010). Body image in Ancient Egypt. Nature, 463(7), 34. https://doi.org/10.1038/463034a
Macaulay, A. (2015, May 17). The body beautiful: The classical ideal in Ancient Greek art. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/arts/design/the-body-beautiful-the-classical-ideal-in-ancient-greek-art.html
Kleiner, F. S. (2013). Gardner’s Art through the ages, Volume 1: The Western perspective. Cengage Learning.
Witcombe, C. L. C. E. (n.d.). Portfolio: Venus de Willendorf. Retrieved from https://www.asu.edu/cfa/wwwcourses/art/SOACore/Willendorf_portfolio.htm