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Pretty Woman: Female Beauty And The Three Graces In Paintings

Sandro Botticelli. Three Graces in Primavera, detail, c.1485-1487. Uffizi Gallery.

Bodies & Erotic Art

Pretty Woman: Female Beauty And The Three Graces In Paintings

Today is the International Women’ s Day and we, at DailyArt Magazine, have decided to celebrate this day with what we love most: art history! Our story begins with Greek mythology and three women who epitomized the ideal of female beauty for various artists over the centuries: The Three Graces.

Everyone knows that Aphrodite (to Romans known as Venus) is the goddess of love and beauty. In addition to being worshiped in temples of the ancient world, the irresistible goddess was also represented by artists of all times.

But there were also other goddesses of love, known as Caritas or Graces. They were three girls that, according to the poet Hesiod, were daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, a sea nymph with whom the god of Olympus had a brief love affair.

The Three Graces were called Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalya, and they were always together. Besides love and beauty, the girls were also associated with nature, creativity, fertility, charm, splendor, and joy, in other words, graces.

Mosaic Dance by Three Graces paintings

Anonymous. Dance by Three Graces. Floor Mosaic. c. 3rd century. New Archaeological Museum.

In some myths they appear on top of Olympus, singing and dancing with the Muses and Apollo; in others they are always in the company of Aphrodite. By the way, when Aphrodite was born – from the foam of the sea – it was the Three Graces who received and cared for her. When Aphrodite wanted to seduce Anchises, the only mortal with whom she had a child, again the Three Graces dressed her and perfumed her to the date. And even when the goddess was caught cheating Hephaestus with Ares, and seen by all the gods, once again the Graces were there, to dress her and console her.

Venus and Three Graces Paintings

Nicolas Vleughels. Venus and the Three Graces Tending Cupid. 1725. Private Collection.

Even though in myths the Three Graces have always appeared as the assistant of the goddess, in art they have become protagonists of countless works, from antiquity to the present day. And with that, they served to represent not only the mythological characters, but also the ideal of female beauty of each period and for each artist.

The earliest representations of the Three Graces appeared in mosaics and sculptures in ancient temples. It was especially during the Renaissance that the goddesses, as well as other mythological figures, became a recurring theme in painting.

The Three Graces Paintings by Rafael

Rafael, The Three Graces, 1504-5, Condé Museum.

Representing women as mythological characters was a way of representing the naked female body, otherwise, it would be too shocking. In Rafael’s painting, clearly based on ancient sculptures, there is an emphasis on the pallor and the indifferent gaze of the girls. Although their bodies are mature, the sexual organs are subtly displayed and the breasts are not exposed.

 The Three Graces paintings by Cranach

Lucas Cranach “The Elder”, The Three Graces, 1531. Louvre Museum.

Lucas Cranach, like Rafael, portrayed the Three Graces completely naked, but in his work the girls do not hold symbolic attributes, like the apple or flowers. Instead, they have props (a hat and necklaces). Only one of the girls relies on her sister, unlike other paintings in which they are always hand in hand.

The Graces of Raphael and Cranach have something in common: their bodies resemble teenage bodies. The ideal of beauty seems to reside precisely in the youth of the models.

The Three Graces paintings by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-5, Museo del Prado.

A little different from Rafael’s depiction is that of the painter Rubens, who opted for more mature Graces, with not so firm bodies, and more opulent forms. Also, notice how their gazes intersect, perhaps suggesting a little more intimacy.

The composition, however, is practically the same. Two of the girls are seen frontally, while the other is represented from the rear.

The Three Graces paintings by Padovanino

Alessandro Varotari (Il Padovanino), The Three Graces, c.1620-1640. Private Collection.

Alessandro Varotari (Il Padovanino) alters this composition, placing two of the girls face front, while the third one turns her back on the observer. Though naked, girls wear veils, an element that is repeated in other Three Graces paintings.

About two centuries later, when mythological themes began to be reviewed the three graces paintings continued to be created. The iconography, however, changed as it no longer showed realistic or anatomically perfect bodies, like in Rafael’s painting, neither the atmosphere was idyllic nor romantic, like in Varotari’s.

Koloman Moser, for example, pointed out in his Three Graces only the side of the body of each, the skins of ochra tone and red veins. The composition, which is symbolist, does not present a garden or field as it was before.

Koloman Moser, The Three Graces, date unknown, Private Collection.

In Moser’s painting, it was not only the structure of the composition that changed, but also the technique and, above all, the ideal of feminine beauty.

And speaking of changes in representation, Sir Lawrence Tadema creates his version of Three Graces painting making use of a complex set of symbols.

Sir Lawrence Tadema, The Three Graces, 1876, Private Collection.

In addition to representing the three figures in the center, he showed the other graces in the corners of the work (in the top left, for example, Law, Order, and Authority). As in the previous paintings, the women are very close, but Tadema only portrays their faces.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the European avant-garde movements were at their peak, the painter Robert Delaunay placed The Three Graces in the Villa of Paris. Although Delaunay fragments the characters, it is still possible to see clearly that he follows the same compositional structure as Raphael.

Robert Delaunay, La Ville de Paris, 1912. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

The Three Graces are a beautiful inspiration from much of what it is to be a woman. Although the characters are the same, the representations over time have changed a lot. Sometimes thin and with children’s bodies, sometimes more mature, naked or dressed, long or short hair… These paintings prove that the idea of beauty is dynamic and changes all the time. And that is where the paradox lies: the ideal of feminine beauty is not ONE ideal. Every woman has a particularity that makes her more beautiful. And that is the real Grace of being a woman.

And by the way, did you know that most of the DailyArt Team is made up of women? So, to all of us, and to you, dear reader, happy International Women’s Day!

Someone who believes, through reading and intuition, that the history of art is the true history of humanity. In love with Renaissance art and a huge fan of the Impressionists.

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