Recovering Zeuxis's Helen:

The Invention of the Female Nude, ca. 430 BC

by

Dr. Robert Sutton, Jr.,
Department of Classics & Humanities, Montclair State University and Emeritus, Classical Studies Program, Indiana University/Purdue

The lost painting of Helen by Zeuxis of Herakleia showed a nude figure in versions known at Athens and Croton. The anecdote of the models, known from Cicero and Pliny, helped establish female nudity in western art from the Renaissance on, and in antiquity the painting seems to have played a similar role. On Athenian vases the common, soft pornographic theme of the female bather, directed largely at a male audience, is suddenly transformed around 430 BCE into a noble, female-oriented image of goddesses, brides, and even Helen. They appear as the familiar kneeling bather type and must reflect Zeuxis’ Helen. This recovered masterpiece can now be recognized as the breakthrough image that established the female nude as a high artistic concept at least two generations before Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos.