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"Rubenesque" Proportions
Those of us this past week who have been hitting the Christmas ham, cookies, eggnog, fruitcake (yuck), and candies a little too hard may be well on our way to developing what has come to be known, both kindly and unkindly, as "Rubenesque" figures. My students in school have been known to get a hearty laugh when reviewing the work of Peter Paul Rubens and others at the "massive" proportions some of his nude female figures have assumed. "Why'd he paint such fat women?" I am often asked.

Well, there are two, somewhat inter-related answers to that question. First, ideals of feminine beauty are notoriously fickle, even within the span of a few years (take the twelve-year period 1959 to 1971 for instance). Second, during the Baroque period, and for centuries before, women with some "meat on their bones" also were women who could afford "meat on their plates". That is to say, they were born to some wealth, hence "upper-class". Thin meant poor and underfed as in peasantry. This is difficult for teens to understand in this day an age when exactly the opposite is true. Thin is "in" and takes more than a little effort on the part of those with the wealth and leisure to "work" at it. Fatty foods are cheap, plentiful, and their effects on our "Rubenesque" bodies the result of working our minds to the point we are too tired at the end of the day to work our bodies.

The strange irony in discussing this subject is that with some minor exceptions (the work of Michelangelo for example) "Rubenesque" proportions don't seem to permeate the nude or semi-nude depictions of men down through the history of painting (or in Michelangelo's case, painting and sculpture). Figures from Medieval art straight through the Baroque era and beyond have been almost rigidly modelled after male anatomical proportions harkening straight back to the Greek statuary of Praxiteles and Polyclitus. Is it merely sexism or is there some greater, perhaps ageless sociologic factor at work here?

Contributed by Lane, Jim
30 December 1997


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