The Naked Maja or La Maja Desnuda, painted by the Spanish romantic artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828), portrays a nude woman reclining on a bed of pillows, who exposes herself without modesty, her arms behind her head and her pubis the center of the composition. She is not asleep and does not even feign ignorance about being observed. In fact, the painting is renowned for the unashamed gaze of the model towards the viewer and thus, transforming the encounter between them in an erotic fantasy.
The painting has been cited as among the earliest Western artwork to depict public hair of a nude woman. The painting, depicting shameless display of a naked woman, obviously shocked the ecclesiastical authorities, but it also titillated the public imagination and extended the artistic horizon of the day.
Along the lines of naked and clothed Monstruas, by Juan Carreno, Goya created a twin of the same woman identically posed, but clothed, known as the Clothed Maja or La Maja Vestida. In fact, based on her costume depicted in the painting, she was identified as a ‘maja’, a lower class woman of the contemporary Spanish society. Though both the versions of the maja are of the same size, the clothed version occupies a slightly larger proportion of the pictorial space.
However, Goya’s Nude Maja and its more modest counterpart, the Clothed Maja, were never exhibited publicly during the artist’s lifetime, as the Catholic Church banned the display of all artistic nudes.
It is estimated that the paintings were commissioned by the Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, Duke of Alcudia in 1800 and were hung near to Velazquez’s Venus with a Mirror and other nudes painted by Titian, in a room reserved for nude paintings. But, in 1808, the paintings were discovered by the investigators for the Spanish Inquisition and in the ensuing tribunal, Godoy and the curator of his collection, Don Francisco de Garivay, were forced to reveal the artists behind those indecent art works. As a result, Goya was named and summoned on a charge of moral depravity on 16 March 1815. However, Goya escaped prosecution as the tribunal discovered that he was only following in a tradition of Titian's Danae series and Rokeby Venus by Velazquez.
It has been believed by many that the woman depicted in the paintings was Pepita Tudo, who became Godoy's mistress in 1797. According to others, she was the 13th Duchess of Alba, with whom Goya might have been romantically involved and painted her portrait twice, in 1795 and 1797. But, many art historians maintain that the model was a compilation of many female figures.
Much later, two sets of stamps depicting La Maja Desnuda were privately produced in 1930, marking the anniversary of the death of the Spanish artist and were approved by the Spanish Postal Authority. It created a scandal in the conservative Catholic Spain. It was argued that such stamps would corrupt innocent children who collected stamps. In 1952, Ostende police in Belgium confiscated La Maja Desnuda stamps from the shop window of a local stamp dealer as immoral. By the end of 1930, the U.S. Mail has officially banned all mail franked with the Majas from entering the country and such mails were barred.