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Does My Bum Look Big in This? The Female Body in Art

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-35, detail, Museo del Prado

Bodies And Erotic Art

Does My Bum Look Big in This? The Female Body in Art

From Kylie to the Kardashians, bums seem to be big news. But that’s not modern selfie culture – the female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history. As Meghan Trainor sings “it’s all about that bass.”

Modern women face a daily barrage of misogynist, hopelessly unattainable images of womanhood. It’s good to remember that womanly bodies come in all shapes and sizes, so let’s take a moment to celebrate that cellulite.

Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Venus of Willendorf has exaggerated buttocks, hips, and thighs. Made of oolitic limestone, she is just over 11cm high, and can be held in the hand. She is over 25,000 years old from the Paleolithic Period. Academics suspect she is a goddess/deity figure – a symbol of well-nourished fertility.

Mosiaci della villa del casale, 4th century, Piazza Armerina, Sicily

Modern excavations at the 4th Century Piazza Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily revealed one of the richest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. This one above was found in the master bedroom!

Peter Paul Rubens is, of course, the undisputed master of the fleshy bottom. In The Judgement of Paris we see a kind of beauty contest between Venus, Juno and Minerva, the prize being the golden apple in his hand. These large, fleshy goddesses look confidently in command of their bodies and their sexuality.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, 1606, National Gallery, London

Three equally confident beauties appear in Rubens The Three Graces. This skillful signature style earned him the term ‘Rubenesque’ for portrayals of realistic, sensual flesh. Rubens didn’t stick to the rigid female archetypes of so many male artists, and the playful, plump, dappled derrieres of his women are a joy to behold.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-35, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Rubens painted our cover image, Venus at the Mirror around 1613, an image re-visited by Diego Velasquez some 30 odd years later. Rokeby’s Venus is more slender, with darker hair than the more rounded Rubens and shows her without adornment. It is quite a departure from the classical depictions found in other works.

The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving nude by Velasquez. Nudes were rare in seventeenth-century art – remember the Spanish Inquisition was policing the art scene! This painting is famous for being attacked by Suffragette Mary Richardson in 1914, but it was fully restored. She said she didn’t like “the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”

Diego Velasquez, The Rokeby Venus, 1647, National Gallery, London

The legacy of the Rokeby Venus is seen clearly in Manet’s Olympia. She doesn’t make it into our shortlist as she is sitting on her bottom, looking out at us. But suffice to say Manet’s stark portrayal of a ‘real’ woman caused a huge stir when it was released to a Parisienne audience.

female body in art

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Another image to draw strong criticism is La Grande Odalisque, the most famous nude by painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres in 1814. The long, sinuous lines of this woman bear little resemblance to anatomical reality, a distortion derided by contemporary critics. Now it is hailed as the first great nude of the modern tradition.

female body in art

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Louvre, Paris

Moving away from traditional representation of the nude figure in painting, Paul Cezanne painted a whole series of bathers, singly or in groups from the 1870s onwards. His large The Bathers is considered one of his finest works and was an inspiration for the Cubist movement.

female body in art

Paul Cezanne, The Bathers, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

William-Adolphe Bouguereau stayed with the grand manners of the past when he orchestrated a whole host of frolicking nymphs in his painting  The Nymphaeum in 1878. These are not really flesh-and-blood women – they are visions of perfection. They have impossibly smooth skins and perfectly proportioned bodies, but I have included it here, just for the sheer number of bottoms!

female body in art

William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Nymphaeum, 1878, Haggin Museum, Stockton, California

Pablo Picasso was the first to deconstruct the butt with Desmoiselles d’Avignon. See how the graceful curves of Rubens have become sharp and jagged. These women seem dangerous rather than welcoming, but this is still the male gaze we are dealing with here. Picasso is no feminist!

female body in art

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907, MOMA, New York

In the twentieth century, it seems we fell out of love with flesh. Or at least with the celebration of its gloriously feminine form. However, let’s end with South America’s Fernando Botero, whose women have a voluptuous glory that is marvellously celebratory. Enjoy!

Fernando Botero, Mujer en la cama, 1996, private collection

Find out more:


10 Most Scandalous Nudes in Art (NSFW)

Candy’s remote, rain soaked farmhouse clings to a steep-sided valley in rural Wales. She raises cats, chickens and children with varying degrees of success. Art, literature and Lakrids licorice save her sanity on a daily basis.


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