Body Positivity in Art: Paintings That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Body

Magda Michalska 20 April 2021 min Read

If you happen to feel negative about your body size, your weight, or your shape from time to time (or at all times, like me), then have a look at these paintings. They will hopefully show you that each body can be beautiful and can make a subject for a work of art. Here’s body positivity in art!

1. Rubens, Venus at a Mirror

Body positive in art: Peter Paul Rubens, Venus at a Mirror, 1615
Body positivity in art: Peter Paul Rubens, Venus at a Mirror, 1615, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

This painting is hung up in my wardrobe, so if I ever feel uncomfortable with a roll of flab or two on my belly while dressing, I look at her. Rubens‘ Venus is a big and powerful woman. She isn’t coy, doesn’t pretend to be someone she is not. She is not afraid of her own body and doesn’t need anybody’s approval or praise to feel beautiful – in stark contrast to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Birth of Venus. Her beauty is in her splendor and confidence.

2. Gustave Courbet, The Bathers

Body positive in art: Gustave Courbet, The Bathers, 1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier
Body positivity in art: Gustave Courbet, The Bathers, 1853, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

When critics saw this painting in the Parisian Salon, they called it ‘dirt’ and described the naked bather as meat on a butcher block. Courbet had intended this work to be even more straightforward, as the loincloth on the naked figure was added later, probably to avoid controversy. However, the cloth didn’t help at all and the viewers found the scene vulgar and pointless since they couldn’t figure out its meaning. Nobody really knows what is happening in the picture, is the bather a mistress of the clothed woman or is she her companion? The only thing we know that she looks like a typical woman made of flesh and bones, rather than an idealized and polished odalisque from many of the works exhibited at the Salon at that time. She was an image of normality and that might have been the reason why she became so controversial.

3. Henri Matisse, Blue Nude

Body positive in art: Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, United States
Body positivity in art: Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Matisse shocked the public with this piece at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in 1907. Its detractors despised the disproportionate and androgynous body which was tinted with the unhealthy colors of blue and green, to such an extent that they burned the painting in effigy in 1913 at the Armory Show in Chicago. At the same time, the painting served as a huge inspiration to other artists like George Braque and Pablo Picasso, whose extremely famous Les Demoiselles D’Avignon bear resemblance to the Blue Nude.

4. Pablo Picasso, Naked Woman Lying Down

Body positive in art: Pablo Picasso, Reclining woman, 1932
Body positivity in art: Pablo Picasso, Reclining woman, 1932, Musée National Picasso-Paris, Paris, France. Wiki Art.

Each woman in Picasso‘s life can also represent a different phase in his painting career. Marie-Therese Walter, whom he met on the street when she was 17, let him study volume and modeling since her shapes allowed him to approach painting forms from a sculptural perspective. This painting is all about curves. Marie-Therese is painted with sinuous lines, and she reclines on a sofa which is round, too. The triangular pattern on the background is meant to emphasize the curves even more. She seems to feel very comfortable lying in a relaxed pose. Her curves make her look not only seductive but also very feminine and vigorous at the same time.

5. Paul Gauguin, Nevermore

Body positive in art: Paul Gauguin, Nevermore,
Body positivity in art: Paul Gauguin, Nevermore, 1897, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK.

The model for this unsettling work is Gauguin’s Tahitian wife Tehura. She was an adolescent girl scared of spirits, which play a large part in Tahitian traditions. The composition of this ‘study of the Oceanic nude’ is reminiscent of Manet’s Olympiayet both the mood and the model are different. Tehura’s body is not a body of a courtesan but of a maturing girl who is still unsure of the future ahead. The raven, “a bird of the devil who watches”, refers to the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Why is the raven watching her? And what does the title refer to? We don’t know.

6. Gustav Klimt, Danae

Body positivity in art: Gustav Klimt, Danae, 1907, Galerie Würthle, Vienna, Austria. Wiki Art.

Klimt tended to paint such tall and skinny women that they would often look almost masculine. Yet in this case, his choice of depicting the mythical Danae is different. The painting’s composition is very unusual as it shows her from above and in the fetal position (which suggests she feels safe while asleep), and moreover, it brings her large thigh to the fore.
Her naked breasts and ginger hair imply that Klimt wanted to render Danae as a femme fatale who is seductive and sensual, but innocent at the same time. She certainly is so, and the curves of her body only add to this golden charm.

7. Jenny Saville, Strategy

Body positive in art: Jenny Saville, Strategy, 1994, The Broad, Los Angeles
Body positivity in art: Jenny Saville, Strategy, 1994, The Broad, Los Angeles, USA.

Jenny Saville is famous for painting fleshy and oversize bodies. She doesn’t idealize and doesn’t preach either. She said that she wanted to be a ‘painter of modern life’ (the one that the poet Charles Baudelaire was looking for in his times), who would therefore paint only ‘modern bodies’. Many of her works are painted as if looking through a wall of glass, and her subjects, although so typical, capture the viewers’ attention. The depicted model is painted from a worm’s eye view, which makes her look proud, powerful, and grandiose.

8. Jean Dubuffet, The Tree of Fluids

Body positive in art: Jean Dubuffet, The Tree of Fluids, 1950 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS
Body positivity in art: Jean Dubuffet, The Tree of Fluids, 1950, Tate, London, UK. Tate/ADAGP, Paris and DACS.

Jean Dubuffet’s works were purposefully made to look ugly and crude. He aspired to create ‘deskilled’ and outsider art, which would draw a lot upon the drawings by children or the mentally ill. He called such works ‘Art Brut’. This portrait of a woman is exaggerated, and her body inflated to an enormous and unnatural size.  The title, however, suggests she’s like a tree that contains all essential fluids needed for existence. She is a spring of new life, new energy, and new beauty.


Male nudes in art: Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, Study, Young Male Nude Seated beside the Sea, 1836, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France. Erotica

The Greatest Male Nudes in Art History (NSFW!)

Nudity started being an important subject in art in ancient Greece. The male body was celebrated at sports competitions or religious festivals, it...

Anuradha Sroha 12 June 2023


Sex, Love, and Death in Ancient Peru: Erotic Gallery – Museo Larco

Hidden underground for hundreds of years, depictions of sex, love, and erotica in Andean pre-Columbian art are now proudly displayed in the Erotic...

Bruno Guerra 12 September 2023


Eccentric Erotica: Pichard & Lob’s Odyssey

One simply cannot praise Homer’s peerless oeuvre enough. We all read Iliad and Odyssey several times, and surely, a considerable amount of us has...

Erol Degirmenci 4 November 2021


The Victorians: An Unexpected World of Erotica and Pornography [18+]

The subject of erotica is vast. Even reduced to only the Victorian world of erotica, it’s a challenge to write about in the space of an article.

Sarah Mills 6 February 2023