What society deems beautiful changes through the ages.
If you pick up any book about the history of art and take a look at the body types in each painting and sculpture, you’ll start to realize that every era has a “type.” For instance, prehistory has the “Venus of Willendorf,” a heavy and round figurine that represented everything a prehistoric man would’ve looked for in a female partner: strength and fertility. A few thousand years later, there are all the Greek statues of athletic and muscular men who represented the ideal Platonic man: fit and intelligent. These “types” are not mere coincidence. They are the product of the culture and values that predominated at the time, which are reflected in the art because that was art’s purpose back then.
The Renaissance was no different. Their type was soft, chubby women, and muscular men, which is very different from mainstream beauty standards these days, at least for women. So, where did these ideals in Renaissance art come from? In one word: Greece. The Renaissance was, in many ways, a “comeback” of ancient Greek culture and philosophy, which influenced everything from literature to architecture and art. When it comes to art, Renaissance artists took the Classical approach, which meant painting and sculpting bodies that didn’t look like “normal” people back then, but rather the ideal man and woman, and the “ideal” was chubby for women, and buff for men. Why? Take a look at the reasons below.
Detail of Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto. (1555-1556)
Vanity, Hans Memling. (c. 1490)
For women, being heavier meant being wealthy.
Throughout the ages, there is a constant when it comes to ideal beauty standards: wealth is attractive. The physical signs that indicate that a person is rich are what we are all supposed to consider beautiful. During the Renaissance, one of the signs that indicated a woman was wealthy was her belly, or just being a little heavy, in general. The reason is that while poor women had to work hard and do manual labor, rich women could stay inside all day, not doing very much, which led the first group to look stronger, and the latter, softer. On top of that, of course, is the issue of food. The upper class had an abundance of good, expensive food that they could eat all day without fear that they’d run out, so, naturally, they would’ve been heavier than a working-class person. In other words, to a 15th or 16th century viewer, the soft, round bodies of the women in these paintings, sent a clear message: this woman is healthy and wealthy.
The Three Graces, Raphael. (1504-1505)
La Fornarina, Raphael. (1518-1519)
A bigger body was synonymous with fertility.
The women in Renaissance art are beautiful, have long hair, wide hips, and tend to be on the heavier side. The reason is that all of these traits were meant to indicate that the woman was fertile, and fertility was one of the most defining traits of beauty around this time. Now, if you’re wondering what fertility has to do with beauty, you’re forgetting that most of the art created at this time in history was created by men, and men came up with their ideas of beauty based on what they wanted from a partner: money and child-bearing hips (barf). If you think about it, modern-day beauty standards for women aren’t that different these days. Having narrow hips or a more muscular build is still considered unattractive by many, and even “un-feminine.”
Venus, Cupid, Bacchus and Ceres, Peter Paul Rubens. (1612-1613)
The Union of Earth and Water, Peter Paul Rubens. (1617)
When it came to men, the ideal was “athletic intellectual.”
The Renaissance embraced ancient Greek philosophy, which held up intellectual and educated men as the ideal, meaning that what they had in their brain was much more important than what they looked like. However, that didn’t mean that this ideal man could let himself go and spend all day reading and debating ideas. Not at all, he was supposed to live a balanced life, where he spent equal amounts of time on cultivating his intellect and doing physical activity. As a result, the ideal man you see in Greek and Renaissance art looks athletic, healthy, and fit, not too muscular, just right, in a way that says “this man is smart, but he also takes care of himself.”
David, Michelangelo. (1501-1504)
Detail of The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo. (1510)
Remember the Vitruvian man? It’s all about proportions.
The other reason why men in Renaissance paintings and sculptures are so attractive is because they are perfectly and mathematically proportionate. The painters and sculptors of this time (like Da Vinci) borrowed from Plato’s Golden Ratio and Vitruvius’s treatise on proportions in nature and architecture to create representations of men that really are perfect. For instance, from Da Vinci’s drawing of a “Vitruvian Man” (c. 1490) we get measurements such as: “the length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man” and “the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.” The idea behind all of these standards and rules was not only to create a proportionate representation of a man, but also an image that was beautiful and aesthetically pleasing.
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1492)
Belvedere Apollo, Leochares. (130-140 AD)
So, there you go. Those are the reasons why women and men look like they do in Classical art. You could see it all simply as outdated standards that don’t apply in our society anymore, but you could also take these ideals and compare them to the ones we have nowadays, which influence everything from what we wear to what we like (or don’t like) about our own body.