This seemingly contradictory state of affairs has its roots in the particular significance of nudity in European art. “In the late fifteenth century, the ability to draw the nude was becoming a prerequisite for the very definition of a successful artist,” writes art historian Jill Burke. Moreover, “successful paintings and sculptures of nudes were those that provoked physical desire on the part of the viewer (who was generally assumed to be male).” Thus, even as the political climate grew increasingly antagonistic, serious patrons of the arts like Philip II and Philip IV continued to collect the best—and, by extension, most alluring—works of art.
This stark contrast between moral and artistic standards could put painters in a bind when it came time to actually hire a nude model. “In the end the ones who are suitable don’t want to strip,” complained one bitter artist of the 1640s, “and those who will strip would make a good model for witches.”
Far and away the most important factor in the development of the Spanish Habsburgs’ illustrious collection, however, was the genesis of the salas reservadas
—cloistered, exclusive spaces scattered across a handful of royal properties for the purpose of displaying certain works separately from the rest of the collection. Though references to sequestered holdings of nude paintings in the royal collections begin to crop up as early as 1621, the first documented sala reservada
appears in a 1636 inventory of the Alcázar Palace under the reign of Philip IV. The room featured nine nude paintings by
, and was recorded as the place “where His majesty retires after lunch.”