19. An Art Perspective

19. An Art Perspective

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident

An Art Perspective

When you judge a woman by her appearance, it doesn’t define her. It defines you.

~Dr. Steve Maraboli

I have been involved in the art world all my life, as a student, creator and consumer. Early in my studies I became aware of a dramatic change in the body shape of the typical female subject.

Paintings created before the First World War showed healthy, full-figured women. The change in body type seems to have happened during the “flapper” craze that swept across Europe and North America. The female shape depicted in paintings moved away from the traditional, fuller figure — perhaps reflecting the deprivations brought about by two world wars, when food was scarce and malnutrition common. But even though conditions improved, the female shape in art did not revert back. And today, we are bombarded with depictions of skinny bodies in art that would have been unacceptable before the turn of the century.

The origin of the curvy female form in art is lost in the mists of time. The earliest examples of cave drawing and sculpture found in Europe and the Americas depict the rounded, full-figured, well-fed female form. These early artists would never have considered representing any other shape to depict a female. The ideal bodies preferred by master painters like Renoir, Rubens and Matisse were what we now define as plus-sized women. Peter Paul Rubens, the famous classicist painter, even lent his name to the painting of robust healthy women. A perfect female sitter was given the complimentary description of being “Rubenesque.”

Early in my art history studies I took a class in life drawing. Each week a new professional model sat for us, alternating between male and female sitters. The tutor attempted to provide a variety of body types, but in spite of her best efforts, all of the art models looked similar: They were slim if female, and thin and muscular if male.

Halfway through the term the teacher announced that she had secured the services of her favorite model, Elizabeth. She had been one of our tutor’s private sitters but had never sat for a class of students. Elizabeth was very shy and knew we usually used models on the skinny side, which she was not, so she was uncertain of the reception she might receive. Still, our teacher convinced her to give it a try.

We were told that having Elizabeth pose would be such a treat we had better not miss out on the opportunity.

“What makes Elizabeth so special?” I asked the teacher.

In my naiveté, I thought that the main demand on a model was being able to sit still for an hour or so.

“Wait and see,” said the teacher. “It will be a revelation, I promise.”

The following week Elizabeth arrived. All of the students were surprised when she took her place in front of the class. Elizabeth was a large, middle-aged woman, much different from any of the other life drawing models. Some of the female students looked slightly askance at our new visitor. They obviously had other expectations. There were some furtively exchanged glances and even some giggles.

Elizabeth quickly settled down to the task at hand. It was wonderful to see how every movement of her body, or of the drapery she wore, changed the light and shade on her wonderful shape. She exuded a feeling of comfort, warmth and a pride in her full figure, and sensed what the group needed — happily responding to requests for a change in pose. Elizabeth had a great sense of self and this came across in her confident and creative manner and then manifested itself in our work.

As predicted by our teacher, she turned out to be the highlight of the year.

Before the end of the class everyone was asking when our new favourite model would be back. Elizabeth was delighted at our enthusiasm and volunteered to return and sit for us for the rest of the semester. All the girls in the class, looking suitably sheepish, lined up to hug Elizabeth as she was getting ready to leave. Wrapped up in those hugs and smiles were silent apologies for being quick to judge.

The classical painters had it right when it came to understanding the ideal shape of a woman.

We never used thin models again during that course. The classical painters had it right when it came to understanding the ideal shape of a woman. It’s up to us to help redefine it for future generations.

~James A. Gemmell

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