Activity - The Human Figure

Look at Raphael's Adam and Eve (1509-11): click here (external link). What do you notice about the poses of these two figures? What effect does it have on the presentation of the human form?

The figures are both in fairly dynamic, twisted poses - a technique known as 'contrapposto'. Clearly the use of contrapposto makes the modeling more interesting, and enhances our awareness of the plasticity of the form. It also enhances the sense that the figure we are viewing is lifelike: contrapposto poses are dynamic, in the sense that they tend to be held for a short period.

The sense of plasticity is enhanced still further by the fact that contrapposto forces the viewer to think about the weight of the body depicted: for weight is shifted. Alberti observed some basic rules about this in On Painting: 'I have observed how in every attitude a man positions his whole body beneath his head, which is the heaviest member of all. And if he rests his entire weight o one foot, this foot is always perpendicularly beneath his head like the base of a column, and the face of a person standing is usually turned in the direction in which his foot is pointing' (II, 43).


Look at Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538): click here (external link). What techniques have been used to emphasise the form of the nude figure?

A number of aspects of the painting emphasise the figure's form.

Modelling is enhanced by the slightly twisted pose of the nude figure, which - as in the case of the previous example - means that the play of light and shade on the skin tones is rich and complex. The fine brushwork employed by Titian means that such a play of light and shade is conveyed subtly.

We might also notice the setting, too. The upper part of the body is set against a screen, which means that the plasticity of the body is contrasted with a flat surface. Moreover, the figure is set between two complementary colours - the green curtain behind her head, and the red cushions on which she lies. It is also set against a white sheet, which further centres attention on the figure. The domestic setting, together with the nudity, suggests intimacy, as does the direct gaze of the figure at the viewer.

The figure's physicality is also emphasised by the way her body interacts with its setting: the modelling on the sheet suggests it is being crumpled by her body; she is casting a shadow; and she is holding flowers.

The composition of the painting, with its dominant vertical lines, is enriched by the sitter's figure running in a broadly diagonal line across the picture plane; the curves formed by her posture (her left arm, for instance, is positioned so as to form a curve around her hip). There is therefore a contrast between the composition formed by the architectural setting and the shapes suggested by the figure.


Look at Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). Analyse the ways in which Picasso's depiction of the nude figures relates to aspects of technique we have discussed on this course, such as modelling, perspective and colour.

This painting is widely recognised as one of the most revolutionary works of art of the twentieth century, for many reasons. We can begin to get a sense of why this is such a startling work of art by considering some of the techniques for painting the nude. Here are just three important aspects of this.

  • Modelling: Unlike the previous two examples we looked at, there is no consistent modelling of the figures. They appear more like a set of flat planes, than as three-dimensional figures. That said, there are parts of the painting that might be suggestive of modelling, such as the thick lines painted beside the noses of the two figures on the right-hand side of the painting, which could be read as representing shade.  
  • Perspective: The figures are painted from multiple perspectives, so that, for example, the figure in the lower right appears unnaturally contorted: we can see both the front of her face and the back of her torso.
  • Colour: Skin tones are painted in blocks of colour which do not seem consistent across the whole of any of the figures. There are contrasts between the blue of the face of the figure on the lower right and the yellowish shades across the painting.



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This resource was created with the help of a University of Leeds Faculty of Arts Enterprise Knowledge Transfer Grant.

 © Matthew Treherne, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.