The Internet was created, it often seems, to distill complex political issues into not-so-complex memes. The latest darting around social media are photo editor Lauren Wade’s modified versions of Old Master paintings, showing Botticelli’s supple Venus, Ingres’ curvy Odalisque, and other classical female nudes Photoshopped according to today’s “standards of beauty.”
But while Wade notes that standards of beauty and body image have changed throughout history, she neglects to consider why curvier women were idealized in classical paintings, particularly those in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. As nutritionist and historian Judith Stern notes, “Low weight and thinness were associated with poverty, malnutrition, and wasting diseases such as tuberculosis” while “extra fat was related to wealth, health, and attractiveness.” Indeed, as one National Institute for Health study observed, “Perception of generous proportions as indication of health, beauty, and vitality continued until second half of the 20th century, when scientists discovered saturated fats, trans-fats, and their relationship with metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.”
One can only imagine the letters to Peter Paul Rubens, whose voluptuous figures represented the chubby elite, denouncing the painter for establishing unrealistic images of beauty, something that likely offended the average bedraggled, diseased 17th-century woman. They weren’t, after all, “representative” of the average Belgian. But Rubens was merely trying to appeal to wealthy art patrons, who liked their models with thick legs and dimpled derrieres.
The Frisky took the bait, writing that “If famous works of art had been created today, they might have a whole different look.” Well, one might think so. The woman might be thinner—while surrounded by cars, spaceships, and potable drinking water. (And it’s worth pointing out—as the blog Hyperallergic did—that several other artists and activists have done this Photoshop trick before.)
And while drawing attention to our society’s unrealistic standards of beauty, Wade of course establishes her own unrealistic standard, emphasizing the pre-Photoshopped paintings’ healthy female form and suggesting that the petite are unhealthy: “Throughout art history, painters from Titian to Rubens to Gauguin found beauty in the bodies of women who would never fit into a size 0.”
A broad-minded and accepting bunch—with the dominant beauty (and class) standards of their own day.