This painting, considered a masterpiece by Chinese artist Xu Beihong, was painted by a student.

Bejing, China

The late Xu Beihong is one of the world’s best-selling artists. In June 2010, a portrait by the great painter of his wife sold at auction in Beijing for more than 70 million yuan (US$11.4 million). One year later, painter Shen Jiawei saw a photograph of it online. He contacted his old classmates from Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, and together 10 of them published an open letter in China’s Southern Weekly. “This picture is familiar to us,” they wrote. “It was one of our class assignments.” Specifically, it originated from a live figure-painting session they had attended in 1983, 30 years after Xu Beihong’s death. The distinctive model had been a peasant farmer who bore no resemblance to Xu’s wife, even though her son had vouched for the portrait’s authenticity at auction. “The strangest thing,” says Shen, “is that nobody came to defend it.”

By 2011, half of the buyers at art auctions in China were laundering money, engaging in short-term speculation or using the country’s lightly regulated auction houses to send covert bribes, according to News China magazine. Between 2009 and 2011, the Chinese art market tripled in size to become the biggest in the world. After government investigations of corrupt auctions in 2012, it shrank by a quarter, and the world art market slumped.



[1] Medieval

In Europe’s late Middle Ages, Christians considered nudity a symbol of humiliation, depicting sinners as grotesque and naked, while everyone else is clothed. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Ghent Altarpiece features original sinner Eve depressed, with only a hand for coverage.

[2] Renaissance

Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s 1486 Birth of Venus was the first monumental female nude of the Renaissance. But Venus’ long-necked body is anatomically improbable, and her pose physically impossible. Anyone imitating it would tip over the shell in which she stands.

[3] Baroque

The women of the Baroque period are best represented by the stout, anatomically realistic women painted by Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens in the 16th century. So vast was his influence that the word “Rubenesque” now describes full-figured women.

[4] Academic

In 1883, French artist Jules Lefebvre’s scandalous Chloe was removed from a gallery in Melbourne, Australia, and sent back to its owner, Thomas Fitzgerald, who hung the painting in his salon. But passersby complained about the nude in the window, so Fitzgerald hid Chloe away.




[5] Cubist

The world’s first Cubist painting, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), includes two nude prostitutes apparently wearing African masks. “It was the ugliness of the faces,” wrote Picasso’s promoter André Salmon, “that froze with horror the half-converted.”

[6] Chinese Modern

When China’s Shanghai Art School introduced nude modeling in 1914, locals were outraged; artist Xu Beihong’s celebrated Back View of a Female Nude was actually drawn during a 1924 trip to Paris, France. It now hangs on display in the Forbidden City, Beijing.

[7] Primitivist

In 1916, Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani’s art dealer asked him to paint nudes to attract attention. Modigliani complied, but his inclusion of pubic hair attracted the attention of Paris police, who had the paintings removed from the dealer’s storefront.

[8] Performance

In 1976, French conceptual artist ORLAN was suspended from her teaching job after a performance in which she compared artmaking to prostitution: ORLAN sat behind a slot machine identical to her naked torso, kissing visitors who put coins down her throat to roll into her crotch.


From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.