English Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Musings – Voluptuous Women in Art

The Three Graces, Rubens, 1635

What you probably don’t imagine is a much curvier woman, who has love handles and stretch marks.  She doesn’t have the perfect thigh gap, in fact there is probably no gap at all, and her breasts are probably not as perky as you imagined the first woman’s to be.  You probably are not thinking that her clothes are a pulling on her hips and that she might look less than perfect.

Of course, I might be casting a massive aspersion here, and making the assumption that is how everyone would picture the perfect woman, simply because this is how the media portrays women, to a rather unhealthy level.  Women and girls these days are taught through what they see in magazines, on the internet and on the TV, that the female figure should be slender and toned.  We often see models of size 6 and under on the catwalks which sends out the message of that designer, to wear their garments, you need to be small.

I grew up in the 80s/90s, and a lot of the images I saw in the teen magazines were of people like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss.

Both incredibly beautiful women, and I don’t want to get into body shaming as that definitely isn’t my thing, but for me, as a girl who had boobs, hips and a bum by the age of 14, I could never aspire to have the rib cage that Kate Moss had or the showing hip bones.  It is very true that women come in all shapes and sizes, but when you only see this figure in the media, it is so easy to be swept up into believing this is what you should look like…But where does this archetypal look for women stem from? This certainly isn’t what we are particularly used to in the art world, so why are we so hung up on the female form now?

The Venus of Willendorf

Meet “The Venus of Willendorf”.  She is the opposite from what we see today, which her large breasts and rounded stomach.  She dates from around 24,000 BC.  Figurines of this nature are often called “Venus figurines” even though they predate the myth of Venus, but this is because they are the ultimate symbols of femininity and sensuality along with maternity. While her figure has been accentuated to show her fertility and child baring features, her face hasn’t even been carved, as though it was really quite unimportant how she looked as the attraction is more about her body type than and what it can provide.  This figure was found during an excavation in 1908 near the village of Willendorf in lower Austria, she is deemed as one of the earliest depictions of the female form.  We can safely assume that the figure has been somewhat exaggerated, but it would appear that from very early on big was beautiful.

Aphrodite crouching naked at her bath

Let us fast forward a few thousand years to the Greeks.  We know that they surrounded themselves with myths and legends of troops of Gods who were beautiful and powerful.  During the 5th Century BC, sculptures and painting on ceramics was the easiest way to convey the stories of these mystical beings.  The Greek sculpture and style is one that we still see replicated today, as they were highly concerned with aesthetics and beauty.  That isn’t strictly true, as they were paving the way to understanding the science behind what makes something attractive.  It was Pythagoras who came up with the ratio of beauty, and Plato who put in motion the “Golden Ratio” of which all beauty is subconsciously judged.  If you aren’t familiar with either of these concepts, very simply put, for a woman’s face to be found attractive, it should be two thirds wide as it is long and be visually symmetrical.  With this in mind, they really knew what they wanted to display as beautiful, and the curves have it.

As an example, take a look at the sculpture of Aphrodite above.  She is curvy, she has little rolls of flesh where she is crouching, she has full breasts and not much thigh gap.  This is Aphrodite, the Goddess of love and beauty, and in the Greek eye this was perfection.  Sadly, her face and arms have been time lost, but this statue would be replicated by the Roman’s for their version of Venus. 

Venus Wounded by a Thorn, Peter Paul Rubens 1606-1609

Now we get to my favourite, Rubens, the true advocate for not only the voluptuous woman, but “normal” looking people in general.  They had lumps and bumps, their flesh moved in ways that could feel unattractive, but it is real, which is why I like it so much.  This isn’t down to artist interpretation of beauty; this is what was considered beautiful during this period.  It is no secret that well fed women were more attractive, as it meant that they had excess money and were not just scraping by.  What I particularly like about this painting, it how the skin on Venus shows the movement in her turn.  Being a voluptuous woman myself, I all to well know this pose, and when I catch myself in the mirror, I very often think back to my early influences of Kate Moss, and think…”I bet she doesn’t get this”, but then I look at paintings by Rubens and feel suddenly more feminine.

Rubens was a master at his craft, he was very fond of voluptuous and plump women and he featured them wherever possible in his paintings.  It was fashionable for women at the time to carry some weight, and Rubens helped in the idealisation of this as the womanly figure. Actually, Rubens took it to a whole new level, making it the standard in all his work.  The adjective we still use today, “Rubenesque”, is used to describe plump, voluptuous, curvaceous women in a flattering way.

Rubens imbued a heightened sense of realism in his own style, expressed through human form. His subjects retain a softness in fleshy detail, delicately arranged and woven throughout an entire canvas.  Their sensuality and femininity are the central focus to his work.  Venus in this painting, dominates the canvas, while chubby little cherubs gather around her to help her to remove the offending thorn.  The dynamic technique of lighting used to highlight the curvy bodies and imperfections, make this painting even more delightful as the audience can see themselves in this work.

So, where did this change?  Voluptuous women didn’t just stop being, but we see less and less of them in artwork today.  There are a few schools of thought on this one, but I am going to go with the one that is most logical to me.

Flip to the 20th Century, (I do appreciate I have missed out big chunks of history here, but this would be a book if I went through each century and their beautifully curved women), we know that while women were a great muse for artists, they were not highly thought of, being subjected to repression, ill treatment and vehicles for child baring.  This changes in this century, World War 1 saw women enter the work force in a totally different way as men went off to fight.  1920 saw women get the vote. World war 2 brought in rationing and more women finding their independence in the workforce.  Pin up girls were created to encourage the men fighting, showing women who were cinched into corsets, or lounging around in underwear, their slender bodies provocatively on display.

All of these elements, brought a natural weight loss to women, also skirts got short and mirrors became more readily available (you know the 7 year bad luck to breaking a mirror came from one costing seven years wages to purchase), meaning that women put more time and effort to into their appearance.

As the years rolled on, women’s fashion became more revealing by the 1960’s and as women’s independence grew further, consumerism and aspirations starting to creep in.  It was no longer acceptable to just be a housewife with a car that you could run around in.  Enter Twiggy, thin hit the scene in a big way.

Twiggy 1966

Visually she looks elfish, her very thin legs and bobbed hair extenuating more of a tom boy look than the figures of femininity from bygone eras.  As we know art and fashion are intertwined, and artists started their own movements of pop art and low brow which concentrated more on the consumerism side of life that the female nude.

This brings us back around to where I started this article, the age of the super model in the 1980s and 1990s.  Women who were waif thin strutted the catwalk, giving particularly unhealthy ideals to young women like me.

Thankfully now, things have started to push the other way, with women who are larger than a size 6 displaying their wider hips and fuller breasts on the catwalks.  Artists though do still see the appeal in the unblemished skin of a slender figure.

This obviously isn’t the case for all, and I would hate to make such a sweeping statement, as there are many artists who now are celebrating the body positive movement.

One such artist is Fernando Ferreiro, whose pencil drawings range through all body types, allowing women and any size and shape to see the beauty in their figure.

Fernando Ferreiro 2016

The detailed work of this artist brings all body shapes under one roof in such fine detail that it is hard not to appreciate the slender to the most voluptuous of forms.

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