As he moves outside the established order, the mythological hero risks the anger of the gods and the jealousy of men. Although his passions, his moral shortcomings and occasionally his frailties stem from his human condition, he is happy to possess the perfect form of the gods: thus the artist and the spectator find expression of a perfect self. The great dramatic destinies thus give character to the compositions, and enable them to interpret a whole range of emotions from determination to despair, from hostility to eternal rest.
Although it is a platitude to say that feelings are expressed most accurately in the face – from the theorised and institutional drawings of Charles Le Brun to the "tête d'expression" competition at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts – one must not underestimate the key role of the body and the anatomy as vehicles for expressing emotion: certain formal choices even led to generally accepted conventions. Mythology and the Homeric epic abound with stories of the ill-fated destinies and destructive passions of heroes, whose nudity is justified by its origins in ancient Greece: Joseph-Désiré Court displays the broken body of the ill-fated Hippolytus, a premonition of the transposition in the ancient world of Mort pour la patrie [Dying for The Fatherland] of Lecomte du Nouÿ.
The Realist aesthetic, which came to the fore in western art during the 19th century, had a dramatic effect on the representation of male nudity. The human body, represented as nature intended, was no longer seen from the decorous distance that characterised the idealised image of the nude, a goal to be achieved through Academic drawing exercises. In this context, where revealing the body was an affront to modesty – in the male-dominated society of the 19th century, the unclothed male appeared even more obscene and shocking than the unclothed female – the male nude gradually became less common as female figures proliferated.
This reversal did not mean, however, that naked men disappeared altogether: scientific study of the male nude, aided by new techniques such as the decomposition of movement through a series of photographs taken in rapid succession – chronophotography – brought advances in the study of anatomy and transformed the teaching of art students. From then on, it was less a case, for the most avant-garde artists, of striving to reproduce a canon of beauty inherited from the past, than of representing a body that retained the harmony of the model's true characteristics.
The evocative power of the nude inspired artists like the Austrian Schiele to produce nude self portraits that revealed the existential torments of the artist. Invested at times with a Christ-like dimension, these depictions, moving beyond realism into introspection, continued to be produced right up to the 21st century, especially in photography.