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

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-35, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Detail.

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 body, especially buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and beauty since early human history and this is perfectly mirrored in art. 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.

Female body in art: Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE, The Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria.
The female body in art: Venus of Willendorf, c. 24,000-22,000 BCE, The Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria.

The Female Body in Prehistoric and Ancient Art

The Venus of Willendorf has exaggerated buttocks, hips, and thighs. Made of oolitic limestone, she is just over 11cm (just over 4 inches) tall 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.

Female body in art: Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
The female body in art: Mosaic from the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily. Wikipedia.

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!

Female body in art: Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, 1606, National Gallery, London, UK.
The female body in art: Peter Paul Rubens, The Judgement of Paris, 1606, National Gallery, London, UK.

Baroque Beauties

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.

Female body in art: Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-35, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1630-35, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Three equally confident beauties appear in Rubens’s 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.

Female body in art: Peter Paul Rubens, Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1614 - 1615, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Austria.
The female body in art: Peter Paul Rubens, Venus in Front of the Mirror, 1614 – 1615, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Austria.

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

The female body in art: Diego Velazquez, The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651, National Gallery, London, UK.

The Rokeby Venus is the only surviving nude by Velazquez. Nudes were rare in 17th 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.”

The Changing Female Body in Modern Art

Female body in art: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
The female body in art: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

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: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Louvre, Paris, France.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814, Louvre, Paris, France.

Another image that drew strong criticism was 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: Paul Cezanne, The Bathers, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
The female body in art: Paul Cezanne, The Bathers, 1898, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

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: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The Nymphaeum, 1878, Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA, USA.
The female body in art: William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Nymphaeum, 1878, Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA, USA.

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: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.
The female body in art: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.

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 was no feminist!

Female body in art: Fernando Botero, Mujer en la cama, 1996, private collection.
The female body in art: Fernando Botero, Mujer en la cama, 1996, private collection. Belleza Pura.

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!


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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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