The Real Muse : Body Image & Art

The Luncheon on the Grass - Édouard Manet The Luncheon on the Grass - Édouard Manet

Yes, it’s time to have the “body talk” again, but with an artsy twist! As your resident Obvi-contributor-art-historian-extraordinaire, I think it is time we look at the goddesses and muses, which stretch back to antiquity, to prove the huge range of bodily beauty. I recently put the puzzle pieces together, as I was admiring some of my favorite paintings, that the way I view (and the way many art-lovers view) women in art is not at all the same way I view actual women walking down the street. The women depicted in most famous paintings are not the same size or shape, but they look beautiful and healthy, and I think they looked like me.  It started to really sink in: It isn’t about how much I weigh or don’t weigh, it’s about what is healthy for me, what is comfortable and sexy to me (and only me).

We have over 20 million women suffering from eating disorders (10 million men, too). Not all eating disorders develop and are caused by the same issues, but I am not going to delve into all of that here. Generally, there is an idea in many young girls’ (and boys’) heads that they need to be skinny which is not a fair goal. However, it is also important to point out that I am not trying to perpetuate the nasty stigma that all skinny humans must be suffering some kind of eating disorder, which is just not true. No one is the same, we are all human… a healthy weight for one is not the same for another.  The operative word here is healthy. While it may be funny when Emily Blunt describes her very unhealthy methods of keeping thin in The Devil Wears Prada, it is disturbing to hear a young woman talk about eating just one rice cake for a meal in real life.  Yet, in olden days (Renaissance, Medieval), food was certainly much more scarce, and to be full-figured was considered a sign of affluence (to the point of gluttony, which isn’t healthy either)! Artists during those times often depicted the Virgin Mary, goddesses, lovers, etc. as these au natural beauties. Even painters during the turn of the century found the gentler, usually unclothed, curves of their soft, pale skin more sensual… and the attitude and stare became more important. It would seem quite clear that artists throughout the world’s timeline did not recognize physical appearance as a sole measurement of beauty.

Paintings, by artists such as  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, and Sandro Botticelli, show women of all sizes, shapes, color as they exude beauty through their sense of mystery or emotion: for example, in Picasso’s Woman with the Yellow Hair, we feed off of the colors Picasso used and the facial expression that give a sense of despair, which somehow becomes magnetizing.  We can even go back further, long before the turn of the century or the Renaissance, but rather to 28,000 BCE and an ancient fertility sculpture, Venus of Willendorf…that little honey has hips that do not lie.

Very rarely will you hear someone see one of these illustrated women for the first time and say, “Hey! Those chicks are fat!” No! You notice the blush on their cheeks, their soft-looking skin, the wisps of their curls, things that also should (and do) attribute to beauty outside of a painting. You also see the background, foreground, other objects in the painting such as the landscape or architecture. You see the brushstrokes and the colors chosen by the artist to depict such a scene and/or emotion. Then, maybe, you see their imperfect figures, but somehow it just isn’t in a negative light, this is a work of art. For me, I’ve often said “Hey! That looks like me!” – how often do people see a billboard or celebrity advertisement on the street and say that? I have never truly identified with most of the unrealistic models and actresses I see in the media and fashion industry. It stinks, but it’s true. And it is not just about weight; I am not skinny or overweight, but my body certainly doesn’t look like anyone I see in ads on Michigan Avenue. Yet when I first saw Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, I thought seeing someone who had the similar body shape as me was amazing and uncanny. Then I went to Paris, to the Musée d’Orsay, and saw this work of art myself that I could actually take it all in, as an art historian and as a woman. Honestly, it was one of the first times in recent years (now that my body has changed for womanhood) that I thought my imperfect waist, generous hips, and imperfect skin were captivating. This woman was interesting and it was not initially about her figure… it was about those features I mentioned before, the personality and life that came out of the painting in her eyes and the softness of her skin. Maybe the reaction to a fine art painting warrants a different response on its own, especially to an art-lover, but this can’t be a coincidence.

Art has this ability to take the concept of beauty to a different level, to celebrate women who look comfortable in their bodies, who exuberate natural allure and realness. This is not a notion that should stay in the art realm; this idea of viewing others the same way we view works of art can and should be instilled in our everyday lives. These healthy, sensual models inspired some of the greatest minds of history — the woman in the Manet painting is a true muse, as she stares deep into our souls, confidence pouring from her. She has her own flaws and her own beauty. She is unique. She is real. Like all of us.


Kaitlin Olivero : Curly haired, art lovin’, loud talkin’, gal who’s twenty-something and ruthless. Most likely to become a Museum Director and to shop literally til she drops.