The European Ideal Beauty
The Art History Archive - European Art

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The European Ideal Beauty of the Human Body in Art
A Short Introduction to European History & Culture

By G. W. Cichon-Hollander

The ideal of the perfect human body is a result of culture: religious functions, economy, advertisment, and other factors.

The definition of beauty is not an immanent and objective quality of things, since every age, place and social class formed its own ideal of it, ideal beauty is corresponding with the aesthetic feeling of people of a respecting period.

"History of art" as a relatively young science earlier was called subjectively "aesthetics". Art was supposed to evoke religious contemplation and/or sensuos and mental delight, as the ancient poet Heliodor postulated.

However according to the great historian Ranke the task of an historian is plainly "to tell as it really was..", and not his own opinions or feelings.

Actually nowadays we are not any more allowed to call something objectively beautiful, only "to me it is beautiful" or "I like it", especially since art expresse the disorder and confusion of mankind.

It seem, that there is no more ideals and "anything goes"...

Now I am delighted to go on a short trip through our history of culture with this exquisite audience!

Prehistoric Times

This is a photograph of the so called Venus of Villendorf in Austria from prehistoric times, about 20.000 years ago. It is believed, that it had ritual functions concerning fertility.

It does not correspond very much to our present sense of an ideal body, because we expect beauty to evoke sensuous and mental delight as an image of harmony and perfection.

This sculpture is small in size, only approx. 11 cm of limestone, but great in design, as it is very elaborately composed and carried out.

1. "Venus of Willendorf"

10.000-15.000 b.c. Austria
limestone, 11,5 cm; Vienna

Ancient Egypt

Some 3 1/2 thousand years ago in ancient Egypt, this, part of an ivory chest, was decorated with a carved relief of a garden promenade of Tut-anch-Amun an his wife Anch-es-Amun.

We see a unique and refined fashion, delicate and fastidious an even, slim female body.

The ladies were shaved entirely! (Sometimes even their heads!) And to emphasise this, their pleated skirts were worn wide open in front!

2. Ankhesenamun, Wife of Pharoah Tut

~ 1350 b.c.; Cairo; Ivory chest (part ~ 30 x 20 cm)

Antiquity: Ancient Greece

This well known drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, about 1500, relates to the only achitectural treatise at all, to survive from Antiquity, by Vitruvus Pollio. Although it is unillustrated, it profoundly influenced art throughout history, especially in the period Renaissance.

Vitruv, in the first century b.c., reports the classical ideal of beauty as derived from symmetry and a modular relationship, of the parts to the whole on a mathematical basis. (The smaller part compares to the larger as this to the whole: this is called "The Golden Section" or the "Golden Mean".)

(AB cut at C, so that CB:AC = AC:AB; about 8:13).

3. Ideal Proportions

Leonardo, ~ 1500, after Vituvius (Vitruvian Man)
1st C. b.c.; Venice, Acad.

Architecture was seen as an imitation of nature with anthropomorphic - that is human - proportions! Vitruv distinguished the three column types as Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, the proportions deriving respectively from a man, a matron and a young girl. Art and science (and also nature) were considered as completely homogenous, as a unit.

Socrates postulated, that the main task of the artist was to give a standard idealised contour of the human body in exact proportions to gain Balance and harmony. We can still admire this in the statue of the "Aphrodite of Melos", better known as the "Venus de Milo", one of the most famous works of art history...

4. Venus de Milo

2nd C.b.c.
Paris, Louvre

... in the same way as this beautiful ideal image of a man's body, the so called "Warrior of Riace", found in the Mediterranean Sea a few years ago, now in Naples.

These personified ideals of classical beauty have influenced art throughout the centuries until today!

5. Warrior of Riace

Bronce, South Italy
Over 2m high; Reggio di Calabria

Antiquity: Hellenism/Ancient Rome

The Hellenistic conception of art derived from natural life, as the Romans were more pragmatic than the Greeks. It was realistic and therefore allowed the first individual portraits in history.

Here we have "Aphrodite Kallipygos", goddess with beautiful buttocks, made about 100 b.c.

For the first time the rear is the focus of attention, the main view.

6. Aphrodite Kallipygos

Marble, ca. 1,50 m
Copy of ~ 100 b.c.; Naples

Early Middle Ages

In these genesis scenes of the "Grandval Bible" from the early Middle Ages, about 840, we can see, how the consideration of physical characteristics, the proportions and harmony of the design, has become unimportant. The human being lived religiously, beyond earthly reality, in an eschatological world awaiting God.

7. Caroline Bookpaintry: Adam and Eve

Grandval Bible ~ 840; London, Brit. M.

Late Middle Ages

Here we see the paradise scenes on a miniature from one of the most beautiful books ever made, called " Les trés riches heures du Duc de Berry", a prayer book of the French king's brother, originating from about 1400.

An enormous change in art has taken place. We see the so called "Beautiful -" or "Soft Style", a luxurious, refined fashion again, with a slim silhouette.

Uniquely the ideal of a beautiful female body was having a belly and looking pregnant!

8. Trés riches heures: Paradise

Praying book of the Duke of Berry:
Limburg Bros. ~ 1440; Paris

Early Renaissance

This is the famous "Birth of Venus" by Sandro Botticelli, 1486.

The Renaissance intended to revive the classical antique style of symmetry and proportions as their ideal of beauty. The treatise of Vituv inspired the world. At the same time the artisan changed from a craftsman to a scientist and intellectual.

9. Birth of Venus Sandro Botticelli ~ 1486; Florence, Uffiz.

Now attention is drawn vehemently from religious to profane, worldly themes, for the first time in history except in the Hellenistic era of Ancient Rome. The ideals of "Humanism" that we see personified here in the painting of Giorgione "Sleeping Venus", Venice 1505, had an immense affect until modern times, as well as this special invention of a reclining nude!

10. Sleeping Venus Giorgione, Venice, 1505; Dresden

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Late Renaissance

11. Diamond Mine Maso da San Friano ~ 1570; Florence, Pal. Vecchio

A painting in the style of late Renaissance, also called Mannerism. The painter shows scenes of a diamond mine in the excessive manner of exaggerating, for example human limbs, far away from classical proportions.

Even this is Mannerism style, at beginning of 16th century! I must not withhold this extraordinary and singular ideal of a perfect male body from you, that was pursued by all gentlemen of the era, like this one with an arrow by Cranach.

12. Portrait of a Gentleman with arrow Lucas Cranach ~ 1530; Dresden


What a Baroque splendour! Here the "Wife of King Kandaules" by Jacob Jordaens, contemporary of Rubens. Their ladies' stout, luxuriant and voluptuous bodies became proverbial!

13. The Wife of King Kandaules Jacob Jordaens 1646; Stockholm

13 a. The prey of the daughters of Leukipp; P.P. Rubens; Munich


Another change in the late baroque time: the Rococo, now ladies became graceful and petite, the ideal was a very slim waist line, the "wasp waist".

The Colours became refracted now with white or even dark.

Here is charming Leda of the Italian "Commedia dell'arte" by Franz Anton Bustelli, who lived in Munich, one of the most ingenious sculptors of 18th century!

14. Leda f. Commedia dell'arte, F.A. Bustelli, porcelain, ca. 20 cm

Early Romanticism

Again very famous paintings: Maya, the only nude by Goya, and to compare the "Dressed Maya". Now, in another classicistic era, the "Empire", the ideal again approaches Antiquity with a flowing silhouette (you may compare the composition with Giorgiones Venus!).

15. The Mayas Francisco Goya 1798; Madrid, Prado


What perfect bodies Ingres shows us on his huge painting! Two antique divinities, Jupiter and Thetis, with classical proportions of beautiful athletic bodies.

16. Jupiter and Thetis

Jean Dominique Ingres, ~ 1810
~ 330 x 260 cm; Aix-en-Provence

Romanticism - Orientalism

Half a century later in a new epoch, we have the same artist with a different sense of beauty: soft curves and magical fairyland was discovered in the art of the middle of 19th century.

17. Turkish Bath, Ingres, 1862
108 cm; Paris


Toulouse-Lautrec's painting "Ball at Moulin Rouge" shows one generation later in the epoch of Impressionism the new fashion of slim waist again, but the "fin de siécle" has something unique in addition: the "Cul de Paris", the "Parisian Bottom", the buttocks are emphasised again after almost exactly 2000 years!

18. At the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, ~ 1890 Philadelphia Coll. McIllhenny

Art Nouveau/Jugendstil

The new fashion in contrast called "Jugendstil" or "Art Nouveau" liberates the body contours from corset once again, as a hundred years ago. Here we see Hodlers huge painting "The Day II" of 1905.

19. The Day II Ferd. Hodler, 1905 ~ 160 x 360 cm; Zurich

Expressionism: The roaring Twenties

After the horror of the First World War only practicability is important. In the era of "Bauhaus" and the "Roaring Twenties" the difference between the sexes vanishes for the first time in art history. Curves are no longer an ideal, as here in the "Dancing in Baden-Baden" by Max Beckmann, 1920.

20. Dancing in Baden-Baden

Max Beckmann, 1920; Munich

Modern Era

Finally - another work of the so called "Classical Modern Era", the "Reclining Female Nude" by Modigliani, 1917, a beautiful and ideal body for us. In contemporary art the variety is vast an there seems to be no more universal ideal. Nevertheless the charming curves of Modigliani still delight our senses.

21. Reclining Female Nude Amadeo Modigliani, 1917; Milan