The Human Body in Art

“Can we go upstairs?” Isabelle asked.

I looked at my watch. We had plenty of time to explore the gallery before heading home. 


Isabelle bounded up the museum stairs and pulled opened the glass door to the gallery. I encouraged her to stop since the Philip Pearlstein exhibit was a new installation. I read some key parts of the exhibition overview, which made mention of the “human body,” aloud to her before she bolted off into the gallery. 

First, I noticed some of Pearlstein’s wartime watercolors. Instead of focusing on the battle scenes, I encouraged Isabelle to look at the way he used his watercolors. A moment later, Isabelle took off. I looked up and no longer saw paintings of war. Instead I saw paintings of nude men and women. (Well, I was warned of that overview, wasn’t I?!!?)

Before I could say something smart, Isabelle called out, “Look! They’re naked!” 

“They sure are,” I replied. 

I had a decision to make:

  1. I could go with the flow and let Isabelle take the lead and ask questions. 
  2. I could deem the exhibit inappropriate and leave.

I picked option one. After all, there’s a lot of nudity in art.

Today’s gallery experience with Isabelle brought me back to the field trips I took my fifth graders on when I was a classroom teacher. I remember them pointing and giggling — early in every school year — when they’d pass a nude statue or painting. Seeing as I took my students to about four – six art museums each school year, I always noticed how they’d stop snickering at the nudity by each year’s end. While we never examined the nude paintings with our museum educators, we always managed to walk by them. The repeated exposure took the awkwardness out of these art museum trips. 

I’m okay with my decision to stay. Once Isabelle saw three or four nude paintings, she no longer commented on the lack of clothes. Instead, she wanted to know what kind of paint Pearlstein used and focused on the background colors in some of the photos. 

So, yeah, my kid landed up in a gallery of nude paintings today. Not exactly how I intended to spend the time with her after her art class finished, but perhaps this first exposure to nude art will make her next encounter with it less awkward.


17 thoughts on “The Human Body in Art

    1. I have loved art museums ever since I was 11. The Met, El Museo del Barrio, and the Museum of the City of NY were free to my students and I. I managed to score grants to take them to MoMA and the Guggenheim.

  1. Nudity is a really natural part of art, and life, I think. It sounds to me like you handled it perfectly!!!

  2. LOL! I was just in NYC last week during vacation and paid my first visit to MoMA and there was a whole lotta that going on. 🙂 So love that after a while it was just not a big deal. Sometimes kids are better at moving on than adults! Have a great Sunday!

  3. I love your willingness to embrace the moment and provide your daughter with an opportunity to look beyond the obvious. She will encounter situations like this as she journeys on. The way we respond provides a foundation for how they will respond. I read “One the Day You Were Born” to each of my fifth grade students on their birthday. Their favorite page is “On the day you were born the the Earth turned, the moon pulled, the sun flared, and then with a push you slipped out of the dark quiet…” often accompanied by giggles. It’s all how we handle these moments that matters most.

  4. Either decision would have been fine. With this decision Isabelle knows that “naked” is what artists sometimes paint. No big deal.

  5. I would have done what you did. You’d have had a lot more questions if you had hustled her out.She learned a lot by watching how you handled something that surprised both of you.

  6. You gave Isabelle the opportunity to “look beyond.” You did not make it a big deal so neither did she. A perfect response, I think. It’s wonderful how she decided she wanted to explore the gallery and was able to talk about the works from an artist’s perspective. Quite a lot at such a young age!

  7. I am in total agreement with the choice you made. In a culture where the body is treated as erotic and sensational, there is also a place for accepting the body as a beautiful, amazing and natural. As she goes through life, she will draw upon these art experiences, and her mom’s acceptance as a counter-weight to the cultural sensationalism she will experience. Good choice, Mom!

  8. I’m glad you picked Option 1. Our culture too often turns nudity into “sin,” and into something dirty. Your child will likely have a much healthier perspective on both art and human anatomy because of these wise choices you’re making.

  9. That’s how I think I would (will? my kid’s not quite 3) handle it too! I think when we make things taboo and scary and rush away from the subject/issue, kids internalize that. Normalizing things – or explaining them clearly – is so much healthier. Also, I’m jealous of and inspired by how much art you have in your lives! Clearly this is something I need to do more of.

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