How do we know baroque art depicted obese ladies because of a different ideal of beauty?

I've often heard that the obesity of women in baroque art signs that such women were the ideal of beauty. How could we know that? And how could we know it wasn't just "cultural rationalization" of a standard physical appearance of higher classes?

• I took the liberty of editing out "prehistorical art" because I think, due to the vast gap in time and space between it and Baroque art, this is something that should be explored separately. – Semaphore Jan 10 at 11:41
• There's considerable evidence that cultural standards of beauty reflect how that society's wealthy look. Until a couple of hundred years ago malnutrition was a constant threat and being fat was a sign of a comfortable level of wealth. Being thin was not. But for the last couple hundred years, starvation has not been a continual problem in the West, so few are malnourished -- but today having the time, money and inclination to stay fit is a mark of the wealthier parts of society. – Mark Olson Jan 10 at 14:01
• @MarkOlson - Also, this was before modern medicine. If you read biographies from that era, pretty much everyone eventually died of disease (usually TB), at seemingly random ages. So if you saw someone with little body fat back then, one good illness would be likely to finish them off, and there's a passable chance they already have that illness. A thin person likely looked sickly. – T.E.D. Jan 10 at 15:13
• Can you specify the nature or origin of the descriptor "obese" as you use it? (For example, it's not a general synonym for "plump".) – chrylis -on strike- Jan 12 at 7:19
• @chrylis - My thoughts exactly. It is not the baroque that is exceptional in its valuation of "obese" ladies, but the late 20th and early 21st centuries that for some (much darker) reason preferes vanishing women. It seems as of now the "ideal" woman would have no body at all, or at least no abdomen. That is far more remarkable than rubenesque ladies in paintings (and calling such women "obese" is a symptom of this modern psychosocial disease). – Luís Henrique Jan 12 at 12:54

5 Answers

Art does not exist in a vacuum, but is rather only one part of the historical record. Just as people comment on our modern standard of beauty today, so does early modern writers on theirs. Fortunately, Baroque art dates from a recent enough period that the historical record is extensive.

For example, a 17th century commentary on a Van Dyck portrait of a heavier women states:

William Sanderson in the treatise Graphice, published in 1658, noted that a beautiful woman was to have "a noble neck, round rising, full and fat . . . brawny arm of good flesh. Such a lady possesses a goodly plump fat."

Wind, Barry. A Foul and Pestilent Congregation: Images of Freaks in Baroque Art. Routledge, 2018.

Beyond artistic contexts, we also find examples of beauty being explicitly attributed to body fat:

The use of fat is . . . It fills up the empty spaces between the Muscles, Vessels, and Skin, and consequently renders the Body smooth, white, soft, fair, and beautiful . . . Persons in a Consumption and decrepit old women are deformed for want of Fat.

Bartholin, Thomas, Caspar Bartholin, and Johannes Walaeus. Bartholinus Anatomy: Made from the Precepts of His Father, and from the Observations of All Modern Anatomists. John Streater.

Historians, on the basis of information like this, therefore argue that people of the period - at least in some countries - considered it desirable for women to have a bit of plump.

As for "rationalisation" - of course, you can definitely make the case that they only considered chubbiness beautiful because of the association with wealth. However, does that necessarily invalidate their standard of beauty? I believe this delves into a philosophical realm over how beauty should be defined, which is beyond the scope of history.

• @pipe The wording seems confusing, but it sounds like they are saying that people suffering from consumption or decrepit old women want to be fatter; but their conditions prevent it. They were considered deformed because they were lacking fat. To me, that seems fairly clear it was showing the thinking at the time. – JMac Jan 10 at 15:19
• @pipe It shows a difference in attitude. Today people praise well toned muscles and low levels of body fat. Rarely do we feel the need to point out fatty tissues are needed (at least, not without euphemising it as "meat" or "weight") - it is assumed most are fatter than the ideal and wants to lose it. The quote however expresses the opposite; it praises the fat and cautions against having too little fat as being "deformed" - it saw no need to mention being too fat. Which implies their ideal beauty is more plump than ours, as the art shows. That is the argument being made by historians, anyway. – Semaphore Jan 10 at 16:15
• @TVann it's worth pointing out that there are currently cultures in the world were fat (in the western sense) is beautiful. Noone seems to have have mentioned that here as it doesn't strictly add to the argument for history but it shows that beauty is certainly cultural. It seem very likely that "beauty" is a proxy for something when we choose a mate and long term health seems to be the goal (for men choosing women). – DRF Jan 10 at 18:47
• “you can definitely make the case that they only considered chubbiness beautiful because of the association with wealth” ... which is the same, strong argument you can make about most every standard of beauty. Be it tans indicating enough wealth to vacation in tropical paradises (~19th c), porcelain white skin indicating a person who was able to avoid manual labor outdoors (~17th and 18th c), or today’s lean, sculpted body indicating wealth and lesuire time to spend on that, etc., there’s a strong correlation between what the wealthy look like and what is considered physically attractive. – HopelessN00b Jan 11 at 1:12
• @JMac decrepit old women want to be fatter, wrong definition of "want". From that period it means to lack, not necessarily to desire. – ggdx Jan 11 at 14:38

A lot of the paintings were commissioned as portraits, why would people pay for themselves to be depicted in an ugly way?

Wealth nowadays is associated with a slim, tanned, and shaped body because those are traits of people who have enough free time, and money to achieve it. In that period, it would be the reverse, being more on the fat side would require wealth, and more refined foods which were more expensive, while majority of commoners would be slim, tanned (for working in the sun) and toned due to hard work.

It makes sense based on those, that it must have been acceptable to be fat back then, even desirable.

• While the first statement makes sense, it is dependent on the subjective nature of what is considered "ugly" - which varies by fashion, culture, time period and even person to person. – Steve Bird Jan 10 at 12:58
• @JyrkiLahtonen That's not really true though. There are a number of paintings of commoners from the baroque era - consider Vermeer's en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_with_a_Pearl_Earring and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_(Vermeer), for example. Named individuals are upper-class, certainly, but that does not mean that paintings of unnamed lower-class individuals were not painted from life. – Graham Jan 10 at 14:52
• Don't forget that a lot of baroque paintings of women aren't portraits, but still show chubby ladies. For example, Rubens's mithological scenes. – Pere Jan 10 at 17:00
• Agree with @Pere; Baroque paintings of Venus (who is surely one of the all-time Western standards of beauty) are much less sleek and toned than a modern depiction would be. Ditto Cleopatra and Helen of Troy. Baroque artists didn't have to render them that way; that was an artistic choice they made when deciding what body type their audience would consider appropriate for a famous beauty. – 1006a Jan 10 at 21:23
• @JyrkiLahtonen That's right enough. Paint and canvas cost money, so artists had to paint with a view to selling their work, and it's always more reliable getting paid for a commissioned work than for something you hope someone will buy. You didn't have to be upper-class to commission a painting, but you did at least have to be rich. There are quite a lot of paintings of successful merchants, for example, and being able to commission a painting was as much a symbol for their success as having a top-line Bentley might be today. – Graham Jan 11 at 10:15

Q How do we know baroque art depicted obese ladies because of a different ideal of beauty?

Do we really?
We don't. The anthropological constant to be observed is: "women are considered 'attractive' if: young and healthy" (both more or less relating to fecundity; Whether socio-biological, evolutionary, or just cynical):

Differences in the historical record in the form of paintings of women –– meaning that not L'art-pour-l'art pictures show not that much variation in 'considered beautiful'. Archaeological evidence, that is more material evidence – like statues – does not support major shifts of aesthetic preference or judgement, before the 20th century.

There is the obvious tendency to ascribe a cultural preference for heftier women in baroque times. "Just look at the paintings!" And while it's certainly true that people come in all shapes and sizes, so it is equally true that people come with all kinds of tastes in all times: some preferring slender shapes, some going for the voluptuous.

The "obvious" conclusion is that in times when all kinds of illnesses, harsh winters and not in the least quite frequent real hunger catastrophes were just around every corner, people with a little reserve in body fat are indeed more likely to survive that, and be more fecund in the case of women. They were/are just more robust.

Added to that is the status appeal: you have to be able to afford so much eating.

But with this "tastes"-angle comes a tiny little problem: we have also at least three selection biases for our material to analyse at work here:

1. When Henry VIII was young and coming, he was the sporty guy with not much fat on him. As he aged he became fat, like the tendency to observe in every last one of us today: as we age, the body needs less energy, but habits change slowly and for most average people it gets harder with every year to keep the same weight. But those people who could afford being painted tended to be slightly older as well.

2. With differing tastes there is then this personal preference thing again. Rubens being the prime example. This painter is described as:

His nudes of various biblical and mythological women are especially well-known. Painted in the Baroque tradition of depicting women as soft-bodied, passive, and highly sexualized beings, his nudes emphasize the concepts of fertility, desire, physical beauty, temptation, and virtue. Skillfully rendered, these paintings of nude women were undoubtedly created to appeal to his largely male audience of patrons. Additionally, Rubens was quite fond of painting full-figured women, giving rise to terms like 'Rubensian' or 'Rubenesque' (sometimes 'Rubensesque'). And while the male gaze features heavily in Rubens's paintings of females generally, he brings multi-layered allegory and symbolism to his portraits.

"He was indeed a chubby chaser(?)", preferring the looks of some women painted being even above what we think to be the norm in his age. (But also look at Karolien De Clippel: "Defining beauty: Rubens’s female nudes", (PDF) ––/–– Leah Sweet: "Fantasy Bodies, Imagined Pasts: A Critical Analysis of the “Rubenesque” Fat Body in Contemporary Culture", Fat Studies:
An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society Volume 3, 2014 - Issue 2: Reflective Intersections, (DOI))

Strong versions of evolutionary psychologists have proposed that men possess perceptual mechanisms that engender a preference for women with low waist-to-hip ratios (WHR), typically 0.70, as this is considered maximally healthy and fertile. This has taken to be culturally and temporally invariant. In the present study, two semi-expert and two non-expert judges made measurements of the WHR of nude females in paintings by Pieter Pauwel Rubens. The results showed that the mean WHR of Rubens’ women was 0.776, significantly higher than the reported preference for WHRs of 0.70. Possible non-adaptive explanations for this result are proposed in conclusion.
For example, the present study assumes that Rubens portrayed women for their physical beauty, but it may also be possible that he portrayed them to exemplify other traits such as wealth and abundance, that is, things other than beauty and fertility. Finally, although Rubens is perhaps the most well-known painter to depict voluptuous nudes (hence the term ‘Rubenesque’), future studies should examine the stylised depictions of other artists and artistic eras.
Viren Swami et al.: "The Female Nude in Rubens: Disconfirmatory Evidence of the Waist-to-Hip Ratio Hypothesis of Female Physical Attractiveness", Imagination, Cognition and Personality, Vol. 26(1-2) 139-147, 2006-2007.

3. The current Western 'ideal' – as propagated in most media, and now internalisedis sick!
While it is quite consensual that too much body fat is unhealthy, it is also quite clear that anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, surgery, pills, and propaganda are sick as well.

By observing the art of different eras, as well as the more recent existence of the media, it is obvious that there have been dramatic changes in what is considered a beautiful body. The ideal of female beauty has shifted from a symbol of fertility to one of mathematically calculated proportions. It has taken the form of an image responding to men’s sexual desires. Nowadays there seems to be a tendency towards the destruction of the feminine, as androgynous fashion and appearance dominate our culture. The metamorphosis of the ideal woman follows the shifting role of women in society from mother and mistress to a career-orientated indi- vidual. Her depiction by artists across the centuries reveals this change in role and appearance that should be interpreted within the social and historical context of each era with its own theories of what constituted the ideal female body weight.
Did medical science contribute to today’s accepted BMI? Obesity has been regarded as a condition that increases the risk of many diseases only in recent decades, when evidence-based medicine took the lead, and scientists discovered saturated and transfats and their relationship with metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Evidence of the change this may have had on society can be seen in the more prevalent occurrence of eating disorders in the latter half of the 20th century. The advice to lose weight and reach a BMI comprised between 18 and 24 therefore might have accelerated the process of the ideal figure tending towards thin bodies, in particular in professions where there is a strong pressure to control body weight such as athletics and dance. The media brought the relationship between an ideal figure and evidence-based medicine to extreme consequences, presenting exaggeratedly thin figures as symbols of health, while in reality being the opposite as shown by data reporting female athletes with higher rates of eating disorders.
The metamorphosis of the ideal woman follows the shifting role of women in society from mother and mistress to a career-orientated individual. Her depiction by artists across the centuries reveals this change in role and appearance. Unfortunately, today, beauty (and the ideal body weight) is not exactly in the eye of the beholder, but in the body image presented by the media and sold to a malleable public.
B. A. Bonafini & P. Pozzilli: "Body weight and beauty: the changing face of the ideal female body weight", Obesity Reviews, Volume12, Issue1, 2011, Pages 62-65. (DOI)

So yes: until just a few decades ago average heterosexual men preferred healthy looking women. Really obese women were always well liked by 'specialists'. But our current understanding of past preferences of beauty seems to be much distorted by what we now commonly call "obesity".

Having a look, I do not see "obese ladies":

(Rubens & his wife!) Portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola-Doria

Shoot me, but I believe 'the Aliens' reading it, would tend to agree, that quite recently, the meaning of "obese" seems to encroach on what we once thought of as normal and healthy:

Now compare the to:

Aphrodite Kallipygos "The Venus of the beautiful buttocks"

If the original model for that would be laser-scanned and then 3-D-printed while calculating here insurance-premium based on BMI: then you know that StackExchange policy probably prohibits commenting on it, but I am certain that you have made up your modern mind on that?

To begin with I accepted the conventional, though actually little examined, view that standards of beauty change from age to age. In human affairs much does change - ideologies and institutions, economic and social systems, class structures, the role and status of women; my own study of the evidence compelled me to the conclusion that, relative to these, beauty (in the western world that I am qualified to write about) has changed little. That is why I call it a 'relative constant', a 'relative universal'. To be honest I am not greatly impressed by the oft-repeated accounts of African tribes prizing fatness, South American ones lip plates, Burmese ones necks stretched and ringed like a snake - in these examples the admiration is for symbols of wealth and status, not beauty. Indeed the whole subject is bedevilled by an elementary failure to distinguish between fashion and beauty.
Arthur Marwick: "It. A History of Human Beauty", Hambledon and London: London, New York, 2004, p IX;

• If you don't see obese women in the unclothed pictures, your eyes need checking :-) Only the leftmost of the three in the first picture would seem to have a healthy body weight - and all of them need some serious gym time! As for the clothed ones, who knows what corsetry lurks under those layers of fabric? – jamesqf Jan 10 at 18:59
• @jamesqf Maybe it is (in) the eyes ;) Two things: you are aware that even the stupendously defined BMI only talks of "obesity" > 30? The conversion accuracy from oli-on-canvas to kg/m<sup>2</sup> is not known for astrophysical precision. And sidenote: corsets can only slim down faces, legs and fingers so much… Any doctor now advising those girls to diet because of obesity should in all probability have his licence revoked. – LangLangC Jan 10 at 19:09
• @Mark Yes. First in behaviour, then compared to previous (their mother's) matrons in size Absolutely, for the media. Now, Marylin Monroe is frequently depicted as "plus sized" despite never being above a calculated BMI of 25 (going by numbers from coroner's report) (Although I'd say "ten" wasn't continuous for Europe at least: WW2+aftermath often had "let's eat again" waves following, for US-'Great Depression' I'd be willing to give leeway as well?) – LangLangC Jan 10 at 21:57
• If any of those people are "obese" you've never been to a Walmart. – Mazura Jan 11 at 4:27
• @jamesqf That would be a person far enough from the average or middle of the spectrum to have her image sell books – Luke Sawczak Jan 11 at 14:28

This aesthetic relativism is also confused by the fact that for most of the history of Western art, women weren't able to model so the artist often just changed male bodies (from his/her model) into female bodies by adding breasts or extra fat or whatever.

Which references Gill Saunders' The Nude: A New Perspective (1989)

• Your source (blog article) however seems to debunk the idea that women were not available to model in the Renaissance. It's also doesn't cover "most of the history of Western art" as you suggest. – Steve Bird Jan 10 at 19:03
• For most of the history of Western art, painting (as far as we know) wasn't done from models at all. The Renaissance practice of drawing women based on male models was only a very brief part of history. – Mark Jan 10 at 21:46
• These are both good points, you're right! – devinr Jan 11 at 20:30
• That argument assumes none of these artists ever saw a naked female or even the bare legs of one. Far more likely is that the artists were vying to project the muscular nature of the human form, male and female, as principles of anatomy were becoming better understood during the renaissance. – Daniel Jan 12 at 0:18

The idea that, taken across the entire range of media and works, art from any given period represents a society or culture's ideal for how anyone - male or female - should appear has no real basis in fact.

It is vastly more likely - especially in any time frame where we know the names and personalities of the artists being discussed - that any given work represents an example of what the artist considered technically interesting or challenging, or important in some other way by the standards of his craft or in the judgment of his contemporary artists. This was true even in portraiture.

Three centuries of artistic technical fascination with chiaroscuro alone should show us this. Artists chose bodies, poses and themes which allowed them to explore the interaction of light and shadow and the human body; and they did so for technical (and aesthetic) reasons that only rarely had anything to do with depicting ideals of physique.

For most of the history of representational art across all cultures, in fact, there was little attempt to make the figures depicted realistic in any way - "beautiful" or not. Nobody would argue that Greek sculptures from the Geometric or Archaic periods represent the cultural ideal of male and female physical beauty of the time, or that medieval weavers of tapestries or illuminators of manuscripts were attempting to depict the perfect human form.

protected by Steve BirdJan 11 at 20:42

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