• Jean-Léon Gérôme | Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Kunsthalle Hamburg

    Pleasures of the Male Gaze

    Pleasures of the male gaze; and in other words: men like looking at women. No surprise there. For males, the eye is the primary sense organ when it comes to appraising feminine beauty. Looking at members...

    Pleasures of the male gaze; and in other words: men like looking at women. No surprise there. For males, the eye is the primary sense organ when it comes to appraising feminine beauty. Looking at members of the opposite sex is, for the male, an instinctual act connected to the sexual pleasure that comes with the necessity to ensure the survival of the species through reproduction. In the pursuit of pleasure, the male’s scrutiny of the female is the preliminary step in an erotic dance. The next step, often criticized by the woman being “checked out” by a male, is the imaginative undressing of the female, revealing the pleasure to be had in her naked form.

    Alessandro Allori painting of Susanna and The Elders (male gaze)
    Alessandro Allori | Susanna and The Elders, Florentine (1535 – 1607) Musée Magnin, Lyon

    Looking steadily, intently and with fixed attention at a fellow human being of the opposite sex with the effect of raising the emotion of desire is a motif that has been very popular in western art. The strength of emotion is a factor of cultural norms. Thus peeping or taking a longer and broader, forbidden look at a clothed or unclothed female, is for males a highly stimulating activity. In art, the eroticism of the illicit act of gazing becomes a visual stand-in for the act itself. A male looking at a picture like Alessandro Allori’s Susanna and the Elders puts himself in the position of the elders and in doing so achieves a measure of pleasure. The biblical event represented in this work is the failed blackmailing of Susanna by two lustful elders who have been driven wild to have sex with her. Their lust was raised by secretly observing her bathing in her garden.

    Giuseppe Cesari painting of Male Gaze: Diana and Actaeon (1602/03)
    Giuseppe Cesari | Diana and Actaeon (1602/03) Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts

    The arousal of male sexual desire through surreptitiously or accidentally observing, a naked female body was a subject of an understandably popular ancient Greek myth. The story tells how chaste goddess Diana bathing in a spring with her attendant nymphs was unintentionally seen by the mortal, hunter Actaeon. The sight of her naked form raised Actaeon’s lust. Diana, anticipating that he would be unable to control himself, dampened his ardour by splashing him with water. The magical treatment was very effective at “cooling his jets” because he was turned into a deer and torn to shreds by his own hunting dogs. The cautionary moral of this tale: don’t look at a naked female, especially if she is a goddess; does nothing to deter males from illicitly or accidentally gazing at females. It merely raises the stakes, adds danger to the act which ups the power of peeping to elevate lust.

    Jean-Léon Gérôme painting of the male gaze of Phryne before the Areopagus (1861)
    Jean-Léon Gérôme | Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Kunsthalle Hamburg

    A specific kind of painting in western art that had the purpose of arousing male lust became popular from the 15th century on. Clothed in the garb of legitimacy by representing select, mythological and historical events, these pictures work because they simulate situations that are not dissimilar to those in the male imagination, where the thought of gazing at a female body may be almost as stimulating as the act itself. This suggests that erotic male pleasure and consequently the male obsession with the female body is entirely a mental construct. A work by the French 19th century painter Gérôme, is an example of pictorial stimulation of the male mind.

    The artist portrayed the trial for the impiety of the Athenian, courtesan Phryne. It is intended to act as a pleasurable reflection on the effects of intent looking at a naked female body. In summing up the case for the defense, Phryne’s lawyer pulled off her robe exposing her to the eyes of the judges. They were, so the story goes, driven to pity by the sight. They did acquit her but it was probably not on account of pity but out of fear of condemning a rare beauty to death and thus depriving themselves of the potential of a lustful encounter with the courtesan.

    Don’t look at a naked female, especially if she is a goddess.

    The excuse or narrative camouflage employed to legitimize pictures of a male gaze at nude females has varied over time. In the early 20th century ancient myths were replaced by a number of pictorial fictions that reflected contemporary life. One of the most popular of these involved the kind of legitimate, concentrated looking at a nude model in the socially acceptable environment of an art class.

    Erotic in the male gaze still depends on notions of chance.

    With the evolution in sexual mores in the last half of the 20th century, the requirement for a narrative context in the portrayal of a nude female in art disappeared. The ubiquity of representations in moving images, photography, painting and sculpture of the unclothed female body, however, has not meant the end of storytelling in erotic image-making. In large measure, the erotic in the male gaze still depends on notions of chance and illicit or secret peeping. Hence the male gaze and delight in the interplay between concealing and revealing in fashion photography. The erotic intensity of this teasing of the male gaze is increased by role-playing. This is thoroughly understood by women themselves who have since antiquity assumed roles as “vamps”, in effect, asserting their sexual power by working with the predilections of the male gaze.

    Art Provocateur is the premier online gallery of erotic art prints. Browse Art Provocateur Gallery for limited edition and one-of-a-kind artwork. We have the largest selection of erotic and nude art from both established artists and rising stars.

  • Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love - The Lover Crowned (1771-73)

    Gifts of Erotica and Ancient Roots

    The gift of erotica has a long history, and such items have been considered symbols of beauty, pleasure, and admiration. The word erotica has so many connotations and often evokes images of explicit...

    The gift of erotica has a long history, and such items have been considered symbols of beauty, pleasure, and admiration. The word erotica has so many connotations and often evokes images of explicit content, and yet, it can take so many other forms: small ceramics, murals depicting the secrets of ancient cults, 18th-century allegorical pictures, etching, paintings, contemporary photos and so much more.

    Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love - The Lover Crowned (1771-73)
    Jean Honoré Fragonard | The Progress of Love – The Lover Crowned (1771-73)

    To understand that there exists an entire world of erotic poetry, novels, and images that without being explicit are definitively erotic and provocative, we only need to turn to literature or art for example. In terms of relatively modern times, one merely has to think of classic books like D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or 18th-century French painter Jean Honoré Fragonard’s sublimated depictions of garden dalliances like The Lover Crowned, a picture commissioned for the French King Louis XV, by his famous mistress Madame du Barry.

    And so this brings us to the fact that one particularly fascinating part of this history is its connection to gift-giving. In Western culture, erotica was a favored tribute for one’s lover, courtesan, mistress, or partner in many historic periods. Poems were written for lovers, allegorical sculptures made, paintings dedicated to a mistress or wife. Collections were acquired.

    Turin erotic papyrus gift of erotica
    Turin Erotic Papyrus | Der el-Medina, New Kingdom, Dynasty XX (1186 – 1070 BCE)

    This tradition stems from ancient times, and in the Greco-Roman period included totems, amulets, decorative objects, mosaics, sculpture, vase painting, murals, and manuscripts. Even though it exists in fragments, we can still see glimpses of erotic acts in this ancient manuscript. Once called the first men’s magazine, The Turin Papyrus is a treasured example of the ancient taste for the erotic.

    It was a favorite practice to give one’s lover an art object, such as pottery decorated with scenes of provocation and sexual acts. Whether gifts or articles of amusement or mythic symbolism, ancient people commonly owned phallic talisman and apotropaic sculpture signifying fertility and fecundity in fields, a motif that has not lost its power to amuse and excite. In fact, in Roman culture, the fertility god Priapus was very popular, and we know of artful examples of provocative amulets such as phallic images found in Pompeii, even seen in lamps, mosaics, architectural decoration, and tombstones.

    Centenary House | Roman Pompeii (79 AD)
    Centenary House | Roman Pompeii (79 AD)

    How did this tradition and sensibility carry through time? There was a certain uninhibited celebration of pleasure in ancient erotica, wall paintings in homes and ceramics reveal explicit scenes of people coupling in various combinations, the strength of which seems to have sustained its appeal and presence. In the 18th and 19th century excavations uncovered previously unknown examples to the great delight of many.

    Erotic and provocative art has always been a form of currency with a value of pleasure.

    And of course, its exceptionally interesting nature may have allowed ancient erotica to be preserved and collected. After all, sexuality is always appealing. Yet, we should be mindful that giving erotica was more than a suggestive or lewd overture. Erotic excitement was endowed with a sacred character largely because of its association with the cult of Dionysus, god of fertility as well as pleasure. Examples of this celebration of erotica are seen in the great pictures of sex acts in the Villa of Mysteries, c. 60 BC, including the picture of a female initiate being whipped by a priestess.

    Villa of Mysteries (60 BC)
    Villa of Mysteries (60 BC)

    While of course there was diversity among the eras and regions of the ancient Greco-Roman world, not to mention individuals who produced or purchased the artwork, much of the cultural attitudes during this period are distinguished by attitudes towards sexuality and the artistic expression of sex as positive if not sacred, and so the gift of erotica had the most complimentary of associations. The formal attributes of ancient erotica are seen in modern artwork as well.

    Today, we might consider that as part of this legacy, contemporary artists who make erotic art hold an equally holistic and sumptuous attitude to sex, sexuality, and themes of desire. This aesthetic and outlook build on a legacy of complex and historical depictions of desire.

    Collecting erotica, erotic art, and provocative art has always been not only popular, but a currency, not to mention the absolutely delightful value of pleasure and titillation, and is truly, the greatest of compliments.