The world of art is filled with so many different representations of breasts. But what do they really mean?
Evolution scientists have discussed for quite a long time the reason behind the existence of breasts. Some believe they just exist because of the biological aspect of breastfeeding. The counterpart, believes that while that biological approach is obvious, it doesn’t really explain why women’s breasts are the only ones in the animal kingdom that grow even when women are not pregnant. Their point of view is that they exist as they are because they’re an essential part of the sexual selection and reproduction. So, if we start from these two basic points, it’s easy to see how throughout history, the ideals of beauty related to boobs have revolved around the subjects of fertility and sexuality. Naturally, one of the best ways to explore these different visions is by taking a look at the visual representations of the female body, as well as how the ideas evolved to fit the standards and beliefs of each time and culture.
First, it's important to understand that ideals of breasts not only relate to their size. The shape, color and size of the nipples, the distance between them, and some other factors that we might take for granted have been taken into account throughout history. Besides the biological matter, the representation is also a reflection of each culture’s understanding of the role of women in their society. Thus, moral values, social concerns, fears, even beliefs and religiousness can be analyzed just by looking at the artistic production of each historical period.
Hapi, the Egyptian god of the annual flooding of the Nile.
Take for instance prehistoric societies that started adding artistic representation in ornaments and utensils. Especially during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, most of these pieces depict unreal female bodies (although that happens today, it was quite different back then) with really tiny heads (or none at all) and massive hips and breasts. Many believe this was actually the ideal beauty of the time, but more than a standard to replicate, these were objects that exaggerated these features as symbols and tokens of fertility and abundance, so the bigger, the better. However these representations didn’t last for long, or at least it would take thousands of years for a similar trend to appear again.
Turin Erotic Papyrus
Ancient Egyptians, for instance, did represent breasts in their art, but only when it was done for religious purposes. Basically, the only female figures whose boobs were actually represented in paintings and engravings were those of female deities. So, it’s easy to find them breastfeeding pharaohs as proof of their divine status. Likewise, some pharaohs and other deities were represented with breasts to represent their power and their ability to provide life. Although breasts did continue representing motherhood and fertility in the case of women, they weren’t represented as huge body parts. On the contrary, they were either too subtle or actually nonexistent. For example, in the highly explicit and sexual situations in the Turin Erotic Papyrus, women’s breasts are shown of a regular to small size.
Snake Goddess found in Crete (1600 B.C.)
Now, this wasn’t the case for Ancient Greeks, whose nudes were more focused on the male body. There are very few representations of nude women in Minoan art (previous to the heyday of the Hellenistic period), and they were mainly statues of the “Serpent Goddess.” She had prominent breasts, associated with the renewal in life. However, as soon as the cities began to grow, this depiction of breasts pretty much vanished, and athletic nude men became the ultimate ideal of beauty. Still, during Hellenistic Greece, statues of naked Aphrodite were pretty popular, but her breasts weren’t as prominent as the ones depicted in Minoan Greece. As time passed, even female nudes began to disappear, and these deities were now dressed, concealing their breasts under the drapes of their robes.
Capitoline Venus (2nd century BC)
As you can imagine, this wasn’t really the case for Ancient Romans, who preferred bigger, fuller, and perkier. Women actually wore bands that we could consider the predecessor of the bra. In that way, sculptures, frescoes, and mosaics of nude women with big perky boobs were highly popular in the empire. That same pattern could be seen in China during the T’ang dynasty in the ninth century, with so many paintings and sculptures that are known as Fat Ladies due to their rounded faces contrasting with their tiny bodies and full breasts. Now, what's interesting is that in most of these depictions these ladies are always covering their bosom with objects or with their hands. It’s believed that this fashion became popular after the emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Kwei-Fei.
Lady holding a gift
Around the same century and until the thirteenth, during the reign of the Chola dynasty in India, archaeologists have found many statues and paintings of the goddess Parvati representing fertility, with extremely rounded breasts and pointy nipples, which were understood as the source of life. In this case, women with fuller breasts were seen as the perfect ideal of womanhood and beauty. So, while in China it’s believed that the idea of big breasts as an ideal was related to people following their emperor’s desires, in India it went back to our primeval instinct of associating boobs to maternity and fertility, and thus to life itself. This idea was replicated as well during Medieval times, although not with the same shape, which is really interesting.
Parvati, Indian godess of fertility
If you take a look at pictures and artistic representations of boobs during the Middle Ages, you’ll see that they’re basically scarce, which it’s not surprising at all. We all know that this period in history was characterized by conservative views on sexuality following a strict religious discipline. For that reason, the very few images we have of boobs are those belonging to depictions of the Virgin breastfeeding baby Jesus as a motif for life and religiousness. However, the Madonna’s breasts are often quite small and rounded. The same happens in the few representations of Eve, who shows a similar type of breasts. The reason is that. although she’s the original sinner, at the end of the day she’s the first mother, thus she also represents the life of humanity.
Mary and Child - Gerard David (1490)
If you think about it, each country had its own beliefs and ideas, even if they were basically under the same moral and religious principles of Christianity. Take for instance England during the reign of Henry VI (1421-1461). Being such a conservative man, he banned all depictions of breasts, and women had to conceal them with bands and clothes. For a about a century, this fashion came and went until the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) where the idea of beauty, at least regarding breasts, was more related to androgyny. This happened not only because the Queen had little breasts, but also because this represented her performing a "man’s job."
Danae Receiving the Golden Rain - Titian (1560-1565)
Going back a bit in history, if you take a look at Renaissance art, the motif of the Nursing Madonna remained, but the emergence and resurgence of art based on ancient mythology opened a gate to explore female nudity more freely, and of course boobs played an important role. However, artists looked for inspiration in classic art and stories as well as in the beauty ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. So, there’s a wide variety of boobs depicted in art, but their representation depended a lot on their source of inspiration, whether it was Greek or Roman. No matter the source, what all these paintings had in common was the depiction of nipples. As you can see in Gerard David's painting, there’s an emphasis on the nipple of the Madonna, which was quite an innovation because by this time, especially in secular art, nipples were basically nonexistent.
Contrasting with these conservative and prudish portrayals of boobs in western art, during the Edo period in Japan (1630-1868) a new artistic current that’s still sparkling the desires of people worldwide emerged. Of course, I’m talking about shunga art. These paintings depict very explicit and graphic sexual encounters and were widely popular at the time, despite the many censorship programs and punishments the government implemented. What were the ideal breasts for the Japanese people of the time? Well, based on this form of art that intended to show more realistic and relatable content for the masses, it’s believed that the ideal boobs were quite big and slightly saggy. Besides that, they admired fair skin tones, and as Renaissance artists, subtle nipples.
Venus (Portrait of Helena Fourment in a fur cape) - Peter Paul Rubens (1638)
This idea of portraying more realistic bodies was also present in western art during the Baroque period, with artists like Peter Paul Rubens deciding not to portray those perfect and ideal bodies. Thus, you can find big, full breasts that aren’t precisely perfectly shaped, perky, and rounded. They're imperfect yet sensual breasts that could actually be seen in real life. We can say that this artistic trend of showing more realistic bodies came to stay, and even today we’re seeing way much more of that rather than the impossible ideals depicted in the past.
Venus Verticordia - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864-68)
The nineteenth century is quite an interesting moment in history. We all know that Victorian England, for instance, went through a conservative and prudish period in which the ideal breasts were associated with those ancient ideas of motherhood and fertility. If you take a look not only at the fashion of the time but at the artistic production, bare breasts almost resemble those of ancient art, perky, not so big, with almost imperceptible nipples. This wasn’t the case for the nineteenth century France, where nipples became the focus of sensuality and eroticism. Thus you have realistic portrayals of breasts but in a smaller size and saggy shape that highlights the nipples.
L'Odalisque à l'esclave - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1839)
We could stay here forever looking at the many depictions of boobs from the past century, but as it happened in history, and is still happening, despite the passing of time, we’ve become a bit more open regarding body depictions. Although there are still many impossible beauty ideals, art has become a medium to challenge them. At the end of the day, there are endless possibilities and each body is different and beautifully unique in its own way.
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