For over fifteen thousand years, humans have been expressing an appreciation of female beauty through art. Since the first recorded example of human figures depicted in Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, the development of female representation has evolved considerably through different ages and cultures. Representation of women reflects society’s ideals and the cultural expectations and beliefs about women throughout history. The complicated relationship between art and portrayals of women is largely concerned with the fact that most artworks are made by men. From Nefertiti to the Mona Lisa, we will look at how physical ideals of perfect femininity have changed and what they reflect about society’s views towards women.
1. Egyptian Feminine Beauty Ideals Nefertiti
The famous sandstone bust of Nefertiti has gone down in history as a huge marker of female beauty ideals with her elegantly arched brows, long neck, perfectly proportioned face, and almond eyes. While Nefertiti predates most of the female figures on this list, her embodiment of Ancient Egyptian beauty ideals is more closely attuned with modern Western beauty standards, with a rejection of large busts, stomachs, and hips in favor of a slender yet strong figure.
Interestingly all depictions of Nefertiti show her hairless, with a face full of makeup that accentuates her lips and large eyes. The bust of Nefertiti continues to beguile audiences with her austere beauty and melancholic yet powerful gaze. One of the central values of ancient Egyptian civilization, arguably the central value, was ma’at —the concept of harmony and balance in all aspects of one’s life.
In Ancient Egypt men were considered the heads of a household, but, within that patriarchy, women exercised considerable power and independence. This high social regard, blended with their important symbolism regarding the afterworld, which honored and elevated the feminine, directly affected the manner in which they were represented and immortalized in art. Priority was given to strength, power, and a more androgynous beauty. In ancient Egypt, a woman’s rights depended upon her social class, not her sex. Women were also allowed to administer their own property.
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The adventures and escapades of Aphrodite and her offspring were, and remain, an enduringly popular subject in reference to Greek and Roman Art. The tales vividly described in mythology pivot around her legendary beauty and her involvement in matters of the heart. The extensive reach of Aphrodite’s outward beauty and the power that she wielded with it are reflected in the way we perceive her now.
Both women are commonly perceived by male artists as having an all-encompassing, hypnotic, and dangerous beauty that is meant to be admired and venerated but also feared and ultimately controlled. Aphrodite was regularly chastised and punished by her husband Zeus for her seductive charms and the seeming potential of her physical beauty.
Another interesting development in beauty standards revolves around the color of the skin of the deified woman. Aphrodite, more specifically, is often shown deathly pale. Gone were the days of exulting in the tanned busts and robust muscular figures, the common artistic expression of these two figures of Greek Mythology shows them as pale, with light hair and a figure reminiscent of a woman not overly chiseled by exercise. They have larger breasts, wider thighs, and a more prominent stomach.
Lower-class women had little choice but to work in the sun. Because of this tanned skin was not seen as beautiful. Pale skin indicated financial freedom. This woman could stay inside, while others worked for her. All these markers of beauty ideals are perfectly captured in The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. The Venus De Milo continues to be the most famous iteration of Aphrodite, suggesting the idealized figure of the time of its creation in 150 BC. It also shows a continued standard of female beauty of the 19th Century when the sculpture was discovered in pieces on the Aegean island of Milos. The hourglass proportion of the waist-to-hip ratio of the Venus De Milo is said to have been the reason for the popularity of corsetry fashion from tight to absolutely cinched, taking the shape of the Venus to the extreme.
3. Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, with long blonde hair (light brown with a tint of red according to ancient Greek translations of blonde), blue eyes, and a voluptuous figure. The alleged persona of Helen, like the Venus de Milo, was glorified for her beauty but her inability to control her life and fate saw her become a slave to another man’s agenda. She wasn’t an equal in the eyes of men, nor did she have any autonomy over her decisions. Her beauty was considered a prize to be attained by all men who met her.
4. Mona Lisa
With beauty being so closely linked to female value and virtue, a lack of aesthetic beauty implied a lack of virtue and a potential threat to men. This dangerous connection led to the idea of beauty as a currency that was supposed to be attained by women in order to connote innate goodness. This also led to the famous madonna-whore complex that puts women into two very specific camps.
One could not be virtuous and considered unattractive, while any woman who used her beauty to trap and betray men was seen as the ultimate symbol of badness. The Mona Lisa is an extremely interesting example of female beauty standards. Her hostile superiority emanates from a figure that is not overly beautiful or unattractive. She is neither excessively feminine nor devoid of desire and attraction in her plain, watchful expression, yet she is arguably the most famous woman in the history of art.
Mona Lisa is essentially a vessel for the skill of the artist—a blank canvas on which the audience can appreciate not the woman herself, but the incredible talent that was used to render her body, face, and features so sublimely. In her very mediocrity, she is the most powerful. While the beauty standards presented in the painting are beautiful to the standards of the time, her beauty has not retained its attractiveness as the painting has aged.
By modern beauty standards her plain, reserved, and unimposing face is no longer the upheld standard of female beauty, whereby at the time of its painting, she was undoubtedly the epitome of desire. Round faces, larger noses, and plumper figures were symbols of health and status. Her hairline, plucked back to straightness to accentuate the desired large forehead, was also fashionable.
Mona Lisa is a complicated figure. Her face is doe-like and innocent, with a similarity to the Madonna figure, with a sense of maternal warmth. But she also holds a very defiant coldness and guardedness in her gaze. She is elegantly dressed in the fashions of the time and has no extra adornments in the form of jewelry or makeup, wearing only the world’s most renowned smile, coyly puckered at the corner of her mouth that has been the source of infinite curiosity. Many researchers have remarked on the feminist power of this smile, with theories implying Leonardo Da Vinci’s desire to use the painting of Gioconda as a kind of declaration of the rights of women.
5. Feminine Beauty Ideals in Modern Art
Now, let’s move into the 20th century. Female emancipation progressed and there was a larger number of artworks that centered on women who were not just objects of the male gaze or symbolic representations. Furthermore, more women artists emerged. They demanded respect and attention from a global audience in a way that was unheard of before.
Tamara De Lempicka’s iconic painting shows the shifting beauty standards. The painting was commissioned by a magazine called Die Dame as a cover piece for their issue that would celebrate female emancipation. Not only is the subject of the painting the artist herself—a very self-confident and bold statement that was uncommon in public art—but she is also seen driving a luxurious car.
Her eyes show a captivating blue/green color with a steely gaze totally devoid of passivity. Her stare is direct and fixed on the onlooker, staring defiantly into the future. The mise-en-scene of the painting is carefully assembled to suggest wealth and power, though De Lempicka didn’t actually own a Bugatti. Tamara has large eyes and lips, clear skin, a thin figure, and elegant clothing. But maybe for the first time ever, this beauty standard is not intended to oppress or control. It is meant to be a celebration of the innate beauty of the female form in just one of its many endless iterations, implying a celebration of them all in the fight against harmful and outdated stereotypes.