Beauty in Art: The Female Form

Images of mythical female beauty—goddesses or Eve—vary greatly across cultures and time, as does what qualifies as “beautiful” among everyday women. In this art gallery, you’ll see wide hips and narrow, breasts large and small, athletic shoulders and sloping ones. Feast your eyes on beauty in all shapes and sizes, seen with loving eyes.

1Mother Goddess (Matrika), mid-6th cent

This figure from Rajasthan, India, with her rich curves and large round breasts, represents one of seven goddesses considered both alluringly beautiful and dangerous.

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2Adam and Eve, 1504. Durer

The German artist Albrecht Dürer wrote several books developing his ideas about perfect human proportions. As you can see in this engraving of his ideal woman, Eve, large breasts were not required.

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3Venus and the Lute Player, ca. 1565–70. Titian

The great Venetian often painted a voluptuous Venus, the goddess of love.

4The Fall of Man, 1st half of 1600s. Rubens

The Flemish artist followed the Italian vision of female beauty in this fleshier version of a painting by Titian. Rubens obviously enjoyed ample bodies. His self-portrait with his wife and a plump child inspired a 1965 painting by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, known for his “fat people.”

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5The Grande Odalisque, 1814. Ingres

When this nude first appeared at the 1819 Paris Salon, critics disliked her oddly long torso paired with broad hips. Later, French writers such as Baudelaire had recognized the power of strangeness. “The beautiful is always bizarre,” he famously said.

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6Old Woman, 1887. Rodin

Also called “The Old Courtesan” and “She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife” (taken from well-known Villon poem). With this piece, Rodin boldly portrayed the realities of aging, as seen on the body of a former professional model.

7Annah the Javanese, 1893. Gauguin

Portraying the artist’s powerfully muscular half-Indian, half-Malaysian mistress Annah.

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8Flaming June 1895. Leighton

The likely model for June was a working-class woman who became an actress with Leighton’s support. She may have inspired Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

9Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918. Modigliani

Modigliani painted his soft-in-the-middle mistress in many works, but never in the nude. For his nudes, he used professional models.

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10Luluwa (Congo) Maternity Figure, 19th-20th cent.

The Luluwa people believe that statues representing female beauty can attract ancestral spirits and aid pregnancy and birth. They see beauty in a long neck, large head and high forehead. The last two are also signs of intelligence and willpower.

11Self-portrait with Monkey, 1938. Kahlo.

After Frida Kahlo’s first solo show in a New York gallery, a huge success, the president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned this self-portrait in which her hairstyle and blouse reflect her Mexican heritage. Her thick eyebrows and furry lip became trademarks.

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