Which body type do artists consider "picture perfect"? Martha Teichner has a surprising answer:
The naked truth is that, more often than not, the women considered the most beautiful in all of Western art would qualify as plus-size.
"They aren't skinny, but they're very beautiful," says Joe Rishel, senior curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"And is that the point?" asked "Teichner.
"That's the point," he said.
The way to address this subject is with our subjects un-dressed.
Rishel showed us an example from the 1880s, "The Large Bathers," one of the many full-bodied Renoirs the museum owns.
"This is a great celebration of abundance," he said, "just this joyous celebration of a constancy of beauty that's going to hold for eternity. These were women and models who really looked like this."
Going back to ancient beauties - think Venus de Milo - the Greeks set a standard that's inspired artists for a couple of thousand years and counting.
Fast forward to, say, 16th century Italy, and look at Titian or Raphael, or "The Three Graces: by the 17th century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens. (You've heard the term "Ruben-esque.")
"There's no doubt that Rubens wants you to experience these women as beautiful," said Time Magazine art critic Richard Lacayo, "because there were different ideals of beauty in different times.
"One of the things about the figures in Rubens is that sense of abundance is associated, in people's minds, with power, with happiness, with pleasure."
Not in 19th century America! Here, artists dared to paint the body - full-figured or otherwise, at their own peril.
"The body in America has been a contested zone for centuries, partly because it is the source of these desires that can be identified as vices," said Lacayo. "At the same time, those same desires can be understood as pleasures."
How's this for weird: For a sketch by Kenyon Cox, the models actually wore masks to hide their identities!
Cox also painted "A Blonde" in 1891.
Bruce Weber, co-curator of "Reconfiguring the Body in American Art," at the National Academy Museum in New York City, said that critics trashed the painting's representation of the nude. "I think they found it really vulgar," he told Teichner. "Too realistic. It wasn't beautiful in the classic or traditional way that people at that time thought of beauty."
But sometimes beauty isn't the issue.
"In African art, very often the purpose of the work is to create a religious figure, and it's to express a certain kind of power symbolically," said Richard Lacayo.
Consider the scrawny figures - female and male - painted by the Austrian artist Egon Schiele around World War I.
"He's making the body express the anxieties and tensions of his own time," Lacayo said.
The same for sculptor Alberto Giacometti, metaphorically reacting to the horrors and deprivations of World War II.
Now meet "Big Sue," the art world's nickname for the obese subject of a startling variation on the classic reclining nude, in a painting by British artist Lucien Freud.
"If you saw that woman in a shopping mall, you would potentially make a moral judgment about her heft, and yet . . . there she is," said Teichner.
"There's a difference between pictures and people," Lacayo said. "I'm not, when I look at this woman, thinking about her dietary practices or her health. I'm being invited to think and look at her as an image."
. . . an image of actual flesh Freud creates by luxuriously laying on paint.
"He's associating the pleasure of the paint with the pleasures of the flesh," Lacayo said.
You might come away amazed when you find out that Freud's painting, titled "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," sold for $33.6 million last year, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living artist.
"It shows that the standard that this painting expresses finds acceptance in this culture, in this market culture that we have," Lacayo said.
Colombian artist Fernando Botero's "Smoking Woman" is expected to go for as much as $1.2 million at another auction in New York next month.
So in a country obsessed with being thin but getting fatter every year, is the art market some kind of reality check?
For more info:
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art
National Academy Museum
"Looking Around" (Richard Lacayo blog)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Art Institute of Chicago
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
Artists Rights Society
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