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  • Writer's pictureParis Tour Guide

A fascinating representation of Beauty through Art history

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

This idea of Women Beauty in Art pushed me to dive into my Art History classes and read few books by french journalists and researchers to understand fully how the women image of Beauty is shaped by Art in the western civilization.

I quickly studied the matter and took a guided tour in Paris around the representation of women in western paintings and sculptures. I was astounded by how the specialized tour guide knew about the topic. I learned a lot about how often women artists were overlooked in the past or pushed to the sidelines when it came to visual representation.

As a Web Designer, I took this tour to ameliorate my skills using Art History as a progress vector.

Through research, I uncovered fascinating stories of female painters who were pioneers in the art world and whose work was only acknowledged long after their death. I learned about a whole genre of female sculptures created largely by women, who in many cases had to fight for recognition in the art world.

I also studied how women were depicted in western artwork and noticed trends based on factors such as religion, era, style, society and location.

My research revealed that although much progress has been made in recent centuries, there is still a long way to go for female artists to be equally represented and celebrated in western artwork today.

So if you ever find yourself wanting to explore and learn more about the hidden history of women’s art – Let's dive right in!

1 - Women states in recent Art history

Beauty to the construction of beauty, to the appearance of beauty will be the main theme of this article which, subjectively, will seek to understand and trace the ways in which women's bodies has been the haunting subject in the history of Western Art.

The woman was a painting / sculpture object and she will be represented in all her ancient states:

  • a goddess

  • a witch

  • an innocent or a saint

  • a virgin frigid

  • an ecstatic object of pleasure

Sculpture of Proserpina, Rome, Italy

Women at all ages were depicted in all kinds of pieces of Art: baby, small infant, young girl, adolescent, wife, mother, old and even, deceased.

Her numerous representations are immortalized into two categories:

· Symbolic : mythological, religious

· Realistic : decorative, family souvenir.

The woman gradually will conquer her own autonomy.

 Jean Fouquet - Melun Dyptich 1450 - Depicting the Virgin and Christ child
Jean Fouquet - Melun Dyptich 1450 - Depicting the Virgin and Christ child

Western woman literally left the frame and emancipated herself from all these images which have embedded her in a male and religious imagination where she was, in essence, submissive and passive.

La belle Allemande in the Louvre

How not to underline at the outset that Art in the French History was men business?

By looking at these images from Art History in Paris museums, D'orsay and the Louvre, I can't help by notice, that almost in their majority, the images are designed, elaborated by men, to be beautiful for men and only for men.

Les Trois Graces in the Louvre
Les Trois Graces in the Louvre

Over the centuries, men have imprinted and made their representations resonate with a certain rule of beauty, enjoining the gaze to acquiesce, without batting an eyelid, to what they imagined to be the canons and codes of an “eternal feminine”.

Woman as the dominant men idea of ​​woman in ancient art.

The woman in ancient art was not like all women but as a reductive condensation of the symbols of women, religious and societal, repeated, declined at will to domesticate our imaginations - those of men as well as those of women -, reverberating beyond the centuries a certain idea of ​​the feminine.

Painting of Venus Miror Miror

"Odor di femmina", says Don Juan to Leporello.

"The feminine is perhaps the secret hidden in the safe that is the woman's body. "

As this secret is, in essence, invisible, it frightened men, and made them question, conspire against women, the witch.

As it causes dread, it must be filled by doing more, so much more that it becomes surplus: look at the first representations of women in prehistoric art, they exaggerate the shapes, too many breasts, more buttocks...

All these images of women are consistent with each other like a system of signs sending conscious and unconscious messages about what a woman should be like.

They were made by men.

Fortunately, this image has not been more recurrent since the turn of the 19th century. During the 20th century, girls had the right to enrol in the schools of the fine arts and had access to the possibility of becoming artists.

To paraphrase Freud, being an artist, for some of them, went through the desire to understand the "dark continent" meaning the feminine side.

Before that, women had no way of representing themselves.

They were represented by men who rarely changed the repertoires, that were handed down by previous generations.

The images which over time have become men propaganda and iconic clichés.

This separation is not a necessity in today's France, not wanting to claim it is even becoming in some places in the rest of the world, a legally recognized possibility.

There are no longer "two sexes".

With its procession of brutality, the male may continue to dominate.

Leaving the patriarchal order remains dangerous, even deadly socially, but also symbolically.

Art, again, disturbs the rules of functioning of our world.

Playing, wanting to be like or of the other sex is dangerous because it is always forbidden. There are boundaries that should not be crossed.

Art, however, has always been there and Art history study is our best tool, if not the only tool, to reveal the Women image as men perceive it through the ages.

Eugène Delacroix - liberty guiding the people painting
Eugène Delacroix depicted the primary role of Women in French Revolution

The representation of women in art has always been a recurring theme, with a wide symbolism that can vary between civilizations, cultures and religions based on the significance that peoples can give it, considering its connotations. This is how, from primitive times, we are still finding artistic revelations of women, passing through time, mixing and evolving from one civilization to another.

Art is the compass with which we can understand the orientation of men perception:

· the mystery of beauty.

· the complex relationship between the men artist and their women subjects.

· the role of women in each society

The first representations of women were the figurines of Venus, large statuettes of women that were made thousands of years ago during the Upper Palaeolithic. The best known of them is the Venus of Willendorf, however, hundreds of them have been found throughout Eurasia, most of them with the same characteristics: An obese representation or with extremely large body features, exaggerated in some cases.

Although it is impossible to define exactly the symbolism of these statuettes today, some authors have speculated that they may be a mother goddess, of fertility or of the ideal feminine beauty. Be that as it may, the truth is that they show us the importance of women in remote times, when societies were still nomadic. In Paris we can find the Venus of Lespugue in the Musée de l'Homme, the Venus of Brassempouy in the Musée d'Archéologie nationale or the Venus impudique in the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

During the bronze age, between 3300 and 1200BC, there was a wide evolution of the tools, increasing the aesthetic details in the sculptures that allowed the elaboration of more realistic statuettes: In Cycladic culture, female marble sculptures had stylized faces and nude bodies with greater design details. In Cycladic culture, female marble sculptures had stylized faces and nude bodies with greater design details.

The Sumerians, considered as one of the first civilizations, also developed detailed female sculptures mainly of their gods such as Inanna, who was considered the queen of heaven.

We understand from their sculptures and reliefs that women is associated with love, beauty, sex and war.

Sumerian sculpture

We can mention other female deities of Mesopotamian mythology such as Nanshe, Ereshkigal or Ninhursag with a wide cult and devotion expressed in the making of statuettes, a clear example of the relevance of women in art based on early religious attributions.

In ancient Egypt in the same way, the deities are broad, and the role of women as a deity is not limited to fertility, but there were also goddesses of music, joy, life and love.

Egyptian Art show us the amplitude of the feminine panorama in the sacred and the moral.

Now, how would an equal society represent women? The reality of ancient societies, men had more physical power. That’s what it takes to be more powerful during that time, even though they had few female deities, some of them representing War.

But the Etruscans are an exception to this rule: Originally from the Italian peninsula, the Etruscan woman had a more leading role in an equalitarian society, unlike other great civilizations such as the Greek or Roman:

A broad social life, they were an active part of the aristocracy, had more economic independence and had their own assets. In Etruscan murals and reliefs, it is possible to see women taking part in banquets together with men on an equal basis, while in Rome and Greece this was not possible and was seen as something immoral, since the only women present at their banquets were prostitutes. The banquet as a theme was also an important funerary theme, as it was the way to enjoy the pleasures of the afterlife. For example, on the famous sarcophagus of Larthia Seianti the deceased is depicted enjoying food, a way of saying goodbye to this probably influential woman.

As can be understood, the Etruscan case gives us an artistic representation of women is without distinction from the representation of men, since their perception made men and women equal.

Etruscan sarcophagus in the Louvre

In this Ancient Italian art, the woman is represented as a person, an undoubtedly human, equal to men, without the need to make her a deity in order to deserve murals or sculptures.

On the other hand, in a society such as the Greek one, where the role of women was relegated mainly to domestic chores and religious festivals, mainly shows us a more limited, although technically revolutionary, graphic representation: Greek sculpture was enormously realistic, and during the Hellenistic period arises an ideal of female beauty that nuanced women to their physical attributes, idealizing women through their deities with nude or semi-nude sculptures.

For example, Aphrodite was represented by her physical attributes and her abilities, in this case as the goddess of beauty, sensuality and love, often naked with an erotic sense.

Athena as a warrior goddess was represented as a protector and was the personification of good, intelligence and strategy. Greek pottery often represented women in their daily domestic tasks, such as weaving, delivering water, breastfeeding and taking care of their families. A great contrast compared to the Etruscan case.

Aphrodite - Louvre

Rome, influenced by the Greeks, maintained similar connotations, and in its mosaics, women are represented as faithful mothers, wives and daughters, but also through mythology, as goddesses and legends.

With the rise of Christianity in Europe during the Middle Ages, women begin to have a more moralistic artistic representation, a behaviour that is associated with sin, holiness or chastity, for which it would be an approximation of dualism: On the one hand, we find the sinful Eve who succumbed to temptation in many representations accompanied by the snake and on the other, the image of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God: a symbol of chastity, morality and holiness.

Virgin representation in Women Art

The Virgin became the main female icon of art in Christian Europe, in many cases represented with the baby Jesus in her arms, a symbol of her motherhood. Reinforcing this position, we also find holy women in the Catholic Church, a symbol of devotion, mercy and examples of faith that are represented in manuscripts and murals.

With Hierominus Bosch, Eve is depicted as a playful seductive sinner, inviting men to taste the prohibited pleasures of life on Earth.

Bosch - Eve is depicted as a "sinful woman" and offered by God as an object of pleasure

During the Renaissance around the 15th century, society began to change in many areas, and with it, art took on other nuances: a renewed interest in sculpture and in Greek and Roman mythology leading to its reappearance. All this focused on the human figure; This is how the representation of women proliferates, highlighting the nude works of mythological themes where they are synonymous of beauty, the same as the classical Greek ideal. Of course, these female representations were idealizations of men, who painted women with pretty faces and perfect bodies in their perception, something recurrent in many Renaissance paintings, so it was still the man who represented the woman with his ideas of perfection and beauty.

2 - Portrait of Women Artists

At this point we must ask ourselves: where are the women artists? It is notable that almost all artistic representations of women are made by men, who show them to us as an object of representation through their perception. The presence of women artists or at least with attributions in the ancient world is known, but this was limited to embroidery, manuscript decoration or even a few female painters in ancient Greece.

Books in the Louvre boutique
Book in the Louvre boutique about Vigée le Brun Artist -

It is during the Renaissance that women begin to build a reputation as artists, partly thanks to the humanism of the period, and figures such as Sofonisba Anguissola emerge, who, in addition to standing out in self-portraiture, paved the way for future young artists.

The Renaissance was followed by the Baroque, where more women artists emerged, however, there was a problem: in addition to the fact that it was difficult to access the workshops, their works were limited to portraits and still life, topics that were not so popular at the time, unlike mythology and history, topics where much knowledge of the human body was needed, that was denied to women for moralistic reasons. Artemisia Gentileschi stands out from this period, who managed to access education and draw naked mythological subjects, becoming the first woman to be a member of the Gallery of the Academy of Florence.

During the 19th century, more women accessed art, and even the first associations of female artists emerged, as well as the photography. This era stands out for the representation of women without the need for mythological or historical themes: simply because they are women, through their beauty or as an attractive figure, in many cases through erotic themes.

In France in this century, great artists such as Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot or the sculptress Camille Claudel stood out.

Berthe Morisot - French Woman Artist

In the 20th century, the representation of art changed with a wide variety of movements such as surrealism, cubism or impressionism. Women are already a common part of art classes and the study of the nude, although it is possible to find prejudices. The woman was no longer only the representation of art, but she was in charge of representing it through her open perception.

Artists like Frida Kahlo, Meret Openheim, Tamara de Lempicka, Leonora Carrington, Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler are just one of the many examples of these women who stood out and were in charge of painting a world of possibilities: The representation of women in art is the identity associated with peoples with all their characteristics that gives us an approach from other times, that advances towards our days with the representation designed by and for women in art with all the artistic movements of today, and the museums of Paris are a place to meet millennia of female representation.

Thank you for reading !

Calling all art history lovers - have you ever dreamed of living in the City of Lights for a year?

Paris is home to some of the world’s most famous and beloved works of art, from the masterpieces of the Louvre Museum to the breathtaking architecture around each corner.

This incredible city offers so many opportunities for those who love art history. From exploring galleries and exhibitions to attending lectures by distinguished art historians, there is something for everyone.

Make 2023 your year to live in Paris and experience its cultural heritage first-hand! Immerse yourself in a city that has inspired creatives for centuries and explore what inspires you. #ArtHistoryLover #ExperienceParis

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