Ways of Seeing

Ways of Seeing Summary and Analysis of Chapter 3


In both life and art, social convention dictates that men and women are perceived differently: men project a capacity for power that reaches outside of their own body, whereas women's entire being is thought to reside in their physical appearance. As a result, women are forced to survey themselves constantly, conscious of the fact that their tastes, values, and personalities will be judged by male viewers on the grounds of their outward appearance. To simplify this, Berger offers the following paradigm: "men act and women appear." While men do the looking, women watch themselves being looked at.

This relationship is especially perceptible in a certain tradition of European oil painting that often depicted nude female figures. From the earliest nude paintings, often featuring Adam and Eve, a woman's nakedness was constituted by her relationship to the viewer: she either performs shame and modesty, or exhibits herself proudly—but never exists as simply naked and unaware she is being looked at. Even as nude oil painting grew more secular, female subjects continued to be defined by their awareness of the spectator. Sometimes, as in Tinoretto's Sisannah and the Elders, this is the subject of the painting: the woman looks at herself in a mirror, just as the spectator looks at her in the painting. The theme of the work is the act of looking at a nude woman. Paradoxically, mirrors in such paintings often symbolized women's vanity—allowing painters to condemn the so-called "vanity" of female subjects that they painted in the nude for the sake of their own pleasure. But the symbolic mirror nevertheless served to reinforce that women should be treated (and treat themselves) primarily as sights to be regarded.

This belief carries over to later paintings like The Judgement of Paris, where Helen of Troy is deemed the most beautiful woman in the world. The painting's subject is a competition between women, vying to be recognized by a man as the most beautiful. But what prize do they win? According to Berger, the prize is "to be owned"—i.e., to be immortalized in a painting which a male owner will be able to enjoy. Thus, female nakedness in this tradition is never an expression of the woman's own desires, but a submission to the spectator's. Berger briefly notes that this is unique to European art; in several other cultures, sexuality is depicted through partnered couples where both man and woman play an active role.

Berger distinguishes between "the nude" and simply "the naked": the nude is always conventionalized, never a unique individual. To be nude is to be on display, while to be naked is "to be oneself." In the standard European oil painting, the protagonist of a picture's narrative is outside the painting itself: the spectator is the center of the action, and he is presumed to be a man. The rest of the painting's action implicitly addresses him, whether by orienting figures outwards so they face the viewer frontally or casting the subject's gaze towards the viewer rather than the other characters in the painting. In this way, the conventions of nude painting make it seem as though the figures have assumed their nudity for the sake of the viewer—a delusion of power that reinforces the spectator's masculine sexuality. This habit continues into modern imagery, which Berger illustrates by including a photo from a pornographic magazine alongside Ingres' La Grande Odalisque. In both paintings, the central nude female figure looks at the viewer with a self-conscious charm, exhibiting her femininity and sexual value voluntarily. The nude painting, as opposed to simply the naked, is defined by a world where everything is organized around the viewer's sexual pleasure.

Of course, exceptions to this tradition exist. Here, Berger discusses a few paintings of unclothed women that are not "nude" but "naked." Sometimes, this is the case because the painter's own love of his subject causes him to edge out the viewer, so that the spectator witnesses the love between painter and subject rather than inserting himself into the fantasy. But painting nakedness is tricky, because, despite all the frenzied appeal of looking at your lover naked in real life, human bodies are ultimately kind of banal, and this banality can be chilling if rendered unremarkably. There's something abject, even disturbing, about a painting of a naked body that's realistic and specific but conveys no aura of mystery; thus, it's easier for artists to simply render their figures as generic "nudes" onto which the viewer can project their own fantasies.

Berger does offer one example of an exceptional painting of nakedness: Rubens' Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat. The artist paints his wife midway through turning around, as a fur has been hastily pulled over her shoulders to cover her private areas. The image is frozen in time, allowing the viewer to easily imagine a moment when the subject was fully naked such that these moments coexist with the one that was captured in the actual painting. Certain parts of her body are completely unrealistic; others, extremely so. She turns at an impossible angle, her torso disconnected from her legs in an optical illusion enabled by the placement of the fur, yet her flesh is rendered with intense care and attention to realism. To Berger, this image transcends the limitations of the generalized (and typically marginalizing) nude, allowing the artist to capture his lover in all her "extraordinary particularity."

He closes the chapter by pointing out how the system of gender relations encoded in most nude painting is inherently contradictory: it relies on the spirit of individualism by appealing to a subjective viewer, yet depicts women as objects or abstractions with no individual subjectivity. While men were allowed to be active spectators, makers, and even owners of paintings, women were relegated to displaying and surveying their own femininity. Finally, this tide has begun to change, as it's increasingly common to question entrenched representational strategies—but the values that underlie the tradition of the female nude are still expressed in other forms of media, such that women still often appear passively for an idealized male spectator.


Berger begins this chapter with an image of Reclining Bacchante by Trutat, a painting of a nude woman reclining on leopard-print sheets as a man gazes at her through a window. Her body angled away from the man, this woman meets the viewer's gaze, ignoring her counterpart and instead gesturing towards the world outside the painting. He then describes how, according to social convention, the presence of a woman is different from that of a man. Men's presence is characterized by the way they embody power, Berger explains: men boast a striking presence if they can dramatically and credibly promise power, whether this power is physical, sexual, economic, or moral—but in any of these cases, the power is exterior to the man himself. His entire way of being in the world is characterized by the promise—which may well be false—that he can use this power to affect others. A woman's presence, on the other hand, is said to express her own attitude about herself. Through the way that women style themselves—clothing, taste, opinions, gestures—they are made legible to the world, leading to the assumption that some intrinsic quality of their being can be read purely through physical signifiers.

Berger elaborates on how this distinction is disadvantageous towards women: "To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men." As a result of this fact, women must constantly survey themselves, carrying an ongoing awareness of how they present to the world: in this sense, "a woman's self being is split into two." A woman's identity, then, is comprised of two distinct parts: the surveyor and the surveyed. This is disastrous for women's ability to feel agency in their lives, as it results in a pressure to behave in ways that they believe others will approve of or appreciate. This is reinforced by the fact that men are continually surveying women, determining how to treat them based on the conclusions that they reach. In order to gain some modicum of control over this unfair process, then, women are forced to survey themselves before they can be surveyed by others, undertaking a constant project of self-regulation. This is the constitutive difference between male and female presence: "men act and women appear," which is to say, female presence is targeted towards constructing appearances whereas male presence is sufficient in and of itself.

To further explicate this complex point, Berger offers a case study: the oil painting of the female nude. The first nudes in this tradition depicted Adam and Eve, referring to the biblical tale by which humans became aware of (and ashamed of) their own nakedness. Notably, in this story, Eve is blamed for the banishment from paradise, while Adam is figured as the agent of God. While the story of Adam and Eve has been illustrated since medieval times, a shift took place during the Renaissance: rather than a strip cartoon or narrative sequence, Adam and Eve were depicted in a single moment: the moment of shame. With the isolation of this scene, their shame is understood in relation to the spectator. By the 20th century, this shame became a kind of display, with nude figures consciously addressing the viewer. Berger inserts an image of an underwear advertisement to illustrate this, drawing a link between this chapter and the upcoming chapter on publicity images. As the chapter on publicity will explain, the self-aware nudity and playful lack of shame exhibited by the "Adam and Eve" figures in the photograph represent one affect that the advertisement claims to sell, beyond just selling underwear.

As the tradition of painting secularized, more opportunities for painting nudes arose, united by a common theme: women are never naked in relation to themselves, but rather, naked "as the spectator sees her." Often, naked women from this tradition either look directly at the spectator, or look into a mirror, joining the viewer in the act of regarding herself. Interestingly, mirrors were used to symbolize women's vanity—a hypocritical pursuit, when one considers that the artists behind these paintings (invariably men) painted them for their own enjoyment. Berger proposes that the real function of mirrors in these images is to make it clear how women treat themselves, first and foremost, as sights to be seen.

He then discusses The Judgement of Paris by Rubens, which appeared in the previous photo essay. In this painting, the act of judgement has become explicit: Paris awards an apple to Helen, the woman who he has deemed the most beautiful. In the system implied here, the most beautiful women are given a prize. Berger explains that the real "prize" is to be owned by the judge of one's beauty. He offers another example to vivify this system: a painting by Lely, commissioned by Charles the Second, which shows one of the King's mistresses staring passively at the spectator as she reclines in the nude. This nudity doesn't reflect the woman's own choice, but rather, her submission to the King's demands. In a sense, by being the owner of the painting, he also owned the woman.

Berger draws our attention to the fact that, in non-European traditions of painting, nakedness is never used as a tool of women's marginalization in this way. Inserting photographs from Persian, African, and Pre-Columbian art, he observes that if a work is meant to have sexual themes, it conveys them by showing active sexual relations between two people, not an isolated woman to be looked at. Here, he refers to Kenneth Clark's proposition that "to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art." Berger agrees in part—the nude is always conventionalized and derives its authority through tradition—but unpacks this statement a little further, interrogating what these conventions actually mean. He observes that the nude female figure in paintings relates to lived sexuality in a way that's often demeaning to its subject: "To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself." Nudity is a form of display, substituting the external signifiers of physical form for more meaningful existence.

In the European tradition of oil painting, the principal protagonist of a nude painting is in fact external to the painting itself: the spectator. Everything in the image is addressed to the (presumably male) subject who regards it, as though the figures in the painting exist to be looked at by him. Here, the example of Venus, Cupid, Time, and Love by Bronzino is employed as an example: Cupid, the male subject of the painting, kisses Venus, the female subject—but her body is arranged to display it optimally to the male spectator outside the painting, not to realistically convey the impression that she is engaged in an act of love. It has nothing to do with her sexuality, but rather, appeals to the viewer's. Berger illustrates this further with two additional images, one from an Ingres painting and one from a "girlie magazine." Both women make similar facial expressions: they look at the viewer, "offering up her femininity" with a calculated smirk, overflowing with charm directed solely at the spectator.

Even when paintings include nude women's male counterparts, Berger observes, the woman's attention is rarely directed towards him—instead, she looks away from him, out of the picture and towards the spectator. In such paintings, the viewer is empowered to consider himself "the true lover—the spectator-owner." In the eighteenth century, a special tradition of pornographic painting employed these conventions, depicting couples making love but always addressing the woman's attention towards the spectator, allowing him to imagine himself as part of the fantasy. Because the painting's spectator is meant to see himself as the protagonist of such a scene, almost all nude European imagery is frontal. To Berger, this relationship between painting and spectator is an absurd way of reinforcing the viewer's self-confidence, consoling him in moments of sadness by reminding him of his masculinity: he is the man for which this display of female sexuality was constructed.

Berger then moves on to discuss a few rare exceptions that break free from this tradition: "paintings of loved women, more or less naked." In these paintings, Berger claims, the painter's own personal vision of his subject is so strong that the spectator is pushed out, forced to witness the relationship between the painter and his subject rather than inserting himself into the painting's narrative. In these exceptional images, Berger sees a revolutionary power: the viewer can no longer deceive himself into believing that the woman is naked for him.

Here, Berger notes that painting nakedness is inherently complicated: nudity has an obvious sexual function in real life, but this function is also visual—the sight of a beloved in the moment of desire is overwhelmingly beautiful and provokes a sense of urgency. At the same time, however, it's kind of banal: any naked person is "more like the rest of their sex than they are different." This banality draws our attention to the fact that sex is a shared subjective experience. Thus, painting a static image of sexual nakedness (as opposed to a generalized "nude") is extremely difficult: isolating one moment in the lived process of sexual relations is inevitably reductive. Thus, it's easier for photographers and painters to typify their subjects as unspecific "nudes" onto which the viewer can project their own fantasy, essentially doing the hard work for them.

Next, he turns to Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat by Rubens. The painting depicts the painter's second wife, frozen in the act of turning away from the viewer. The eponymous fur coat is about to slip off her shoulders, leaving her nude—but in this moment, she's still halfway covered. Berger claims that this painting "contains time and its experience": the spectator is invited to imagine how, a moment later, she will be entirely naked. Because of a couple of anatomical impossibilities, the woman's body is rendered as more dynamic—the upper and lower halves of her body rotate separately—gesturing towards her concealed pelvis, the locus of her sexuality and the spot where these two impossible halves meet. Rubens has transcended the element of banality that Berger describes earlier, while retaining the kind of individuality that is impossible in a nude that's painted exclusively for the generic male spectator's enjoyment.

Berger then explains that these paintings are grounded in the European humanist philosophical tradition, which privileges individuality. However, the presumed individuality of a painting's viewer—typically male—was not reflected in its nude female subjects: the woman is "a thing or an abstraction" to the man who views her. This contradiction carries over into modern art, plaguing painters as they try to resolve it. One such example is Manet's Olympia, where the woman, cast in the traditional role of "nude," begins to defiantly question her relationship to the spectator. The pattern still has yet to be successfully broken: the same underlying attitudes that contribute to women's oppression have diffused across other media. As a result, many of the images that we consume today embody a similar "way of seeing" to the oil-painted nudes of late: that women first and foremost exist as images designed to flatter a male spectator. Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema argues that in the films of Alfred Hitchcock (and, indeed, much classical Hollywood cinema), female characters' appearances and behaviors are calibrated to the pleasure of a male protagonist, with whom the male spectator is supposed to identify in order to project himself into the film's fantasy. By drawing our attention to this fact, Berger, like Mulvey, encourages us to question our passive reception of media's gendered representations, in hopes that by recognizing these codes and their effects, we can eventually change them.