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Portraits of Women

Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing the criteria defining beauty in the human face. Both of us, having some experience in portraiture, also professed some expertise in assessing this very transient and highly subjective subject. We fell to discussing the symmetrical versus the asymmetrical face, as well as the different cultural definitions of facial beauty, and the effects of age, race, sex, and nationality as well. All these things we readily agreed were factors, neither positive nor negative, but nonetheless critically important. Eventually, we decided that if we were going to get anywhere we'd have to limit ourselves to the media model of youthful, adult "classical" beauty from a Western point of view. Within those limitations, some general "rules" could emerge.

I recall reading somewhere that in general, people tend to consider the symmetrical face more attractive than the asymmetrical one, though I can think of countless exceptions, the actress, Vivien Leigh for example. Her highly arched right eyebrow still turns me on. Beyond that however, a number of other features play a part. Here are some Western guidelines to beauty that seem to prevail regardless of age or sex. The most important features are the eyes (large and colourful seems to be the rule). The nose is probably the least attractive part of the face, (bigger is not better). It goes without saying that sparkling, even, average-sized teeth are a plus. A flawless complexion is a must too. The mouth and lips are less important provided they are not abnormally large, thick, or thin. Oval seems to be the most attractive shape for the face. Hair length, style, and its colour (despite the amount of time people of both sexes spend playing with it) seems to make little difference so long as it is clean and well kept. (The quantity of it is a factor, however.) Eyebrows should be strong and arched for classic beauty to prevail. The ears and forehead don't matter much so long as they are not exceptional in any way. Youthful beauty demands a strong, smooth jaw line, and it is this one feature which defines age more than any other. A classically beautiful face does not necessarily demand all these assets be perfect, but usually there is no more than one of them to be found lacking.

It's important to keep in mind that a face is a work of art constantly "in progress." It might be called the very definition of metamorphosis. As it changes, we unconsciously change our criteria in defining its beauty. The image of a beautiful baby in no way resembles that of a young bride, nor that of our beautiful, aged grandmothers. There are some constants though. An angelic little girl seldom grows up to be anything other than a lovely young woman, then an attractive matron, and finally a sweet little old lady; and classic beauty survives very nicely this transition. On the other side of the coin, let's "face" it, fat, lines, wrinkles, dry skin, sags and bags, warts and liver spots all rob a face of its classic beauty. Fortunately, this is where the painter’s art comes into play. We try first to make improvements by painting the face itself. Beyond that, then the only other alternative is in our clever, discreetly flattering artistic expression of that face on canvas. And it's in this endeavour that the artist must be acutely aware of the building blocks of classic beauty and the outside influences having to bear upon it.

contributed by Lane, Jim

3 December 1999

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Peter Paul Rubens
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A Pretty Face
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Eleonora of Toledo with her son Giovanni de' Medici (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano (Bronzino))
Empress Isabel of Portugal (Tiziano Vecelli (Titian))
Female Nude Reclining on a Divan (Eugène Delacroix)
Head of a Woman in a Turban (Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson)
Her eyes are with her thoughts... (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema)
Hortense de Beauharnais (Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson)
Jane Seymour, Queen of England (Hans Holbein (the Younger))
La Comtesse Regnault de Saint-Jean d'Angély (Baron François Gérard)
La Gare (Edouard Manet)
Lady Anne Torphicen (Sir Henry Raeburn)
Lady Hamilton as 'Nature' (George Romney)
Lady Hamilton in a Straw Hat (George Romney)
Lady in a Brown Robe (George Romney)
Lady Sarah Bunbury Sacrificing to the Graces (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
Lady Wearing a Gauze Headdress (Rogier van der Weyden)
Lydia in a Loge Wearing a Pearl Necklace (Mary Cassatt)
Madame de Sorquainville (Jean-Baptiste Perronneau)
Madame Récamier (Baron Antoine-Jean Gros)
Madame Récamier (Baron François Gérard)
Madame Valpincon with Chrysanthemums (Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas)
Marie Adelaide of France as Diana (Jean-Marc Nattier)
Marie Adelaide of France as Flora (Jean-Marc Nattier)
Marie Leczinska, Queen of France (Louis Tocqué)
Miss Constable (George Romney)
Miss Eleanor Urquhart (Sir Henry Raeburn)
Mlle Ferrand Meditating on Newton (Maurice Quentin de la Tour)
Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci)
Mrs Peter Beckford (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
Mrs. Colin Campbell of Park (Sir Henry Raeburn)
Mrs. Martin (Allan Ramsay)
Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (Thomas Gainsborough)
Nude Maja (Francisco José de Goya Y Lucientes)
Olympia (Edouard Manet)
Portrait of a Child Murderer (Jean Louis André Théodore Géricault)
Portrait of a Lady as a Vestal Virgin (Jean-Marc Nattier)
Portrait of a Woman (Robert Campin)
Portrait of a Woman in Grey (Jean-Marc Nattier)
Portrait of Battista Sforza (Piero della Francesca)
Portrait of Ekaterina Golovkina (Louis Tocqué)
Portrait of Emilie Floge (Gustav Klimt)
Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (Louis Tocqué)
Portrait of Madame Maria Leszczynska (Jean-Marc Nattier)
Portrait of Madame Récamier (Jacques-Louis David)
Portrait of Mademoiselle de Coislin (Louis Tocqué)
Portrait of Mrs. Andrew (Sir Henry Raeburn)
Portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Sir Joshua Reynolds)
Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour (Maurice Quentin de la Tour)
Queen Charlotte (Allan Ramsay)
Queen Charlotte with her Two Children (Allan Ramsay)
Queen Eleanor (Anthony Frederick Sandys)
Red Cap (Anthony Frederick Sandys)
Saskia in Pompous Dress (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn)
The Cup of Tea (Mary Cassatt)
The Dancer Camargo (Nicolas Lancret)
The Duchess of Parma and her daughter Isabelle (Jean-Marc Nattier)
The Empress Josephine (Pierre-Paul Prud'hon)
The Marquise de Pompadour (François Boucher)
The Painter's Family (Hans Holbein (the Younger))
The Source (Gustave Courbet)
The Tease (John William Godward)
Woman with a Parrot (Gustave Courbet)
Young Woman in a White Hat (Jean-Baptiste Greuze)


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