Beauty shows its many faces through art
Today’s assessments of good looks are very narrow – but a visit to an art gallery will correct your vision
Awoman, just out of her bath and wearing nothing but a pair of scarlet slippers, combs her hair. It is blonde and long as a mermaid’s plait, finishing somewhere below her knees. One breast is covered by her arm; the other exposed. Sketched in charcoal and red chalk, she is a highlight of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s new Edgar Degas exhibition. She is sturdy, curvy, fleshy. Today, any fashion stylist let loose on Degas’s model would send for the Spanx: hoik those breasts, cinch that waist, lift that bum. But Degas thought her beautiful.
Beauty changes. One culture, one age prizes skinniness, the next abundance. Think of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s little minxes with tea-cup breasts and cherry bottoms. That was Germany in the 16th century. Now consider Peter Paul Rubens, painting in Antwerp 100 years later. His classical goddesses and Old Testament temptresses are plumply gorgeous, pass-the-cream, good-cheer girls.
We look aghast now at paintings of courtly beauties in medieval illuminated manuscripts. How weird the women look with their high, plucked hairlines, their pointed hats like upturned ice-cream cones, their shaved eyebrows. We are appalled by Elizabeth I powdering her face to ghoulish whiteness, and at the corsets and crinolines of our greatgreat-grandmothers. At the height of “crinoline mania” in the 1850s, as many as 300 women were thought to have died when their hems, some with a circumference of 18ft, swept into grates and caught fire. The steel rings also used to snap and cause internal injuries.
What will our great-greatgranddaughters think most absurd about our age? Wonderbras? Tango tans? Trout pouts? Thigh gaps? The bizarre facial “contouring” of the Kardashian sisters? Western women lie in the sun to burn their limbs golden; Asian women buy skinlightening bleaches to be pale. We think a holiday tan is aspirational; they think that darker skin is a sign of peasant work in the fields. The rich and aristocratic lounge in the shade.
Throughout my teens and twenties – I am now 29 – the desirable body has been thin, tall, flat-chested; the ideal face preternaturally young, doe-eyed and heart-shaped; the perfect skin colour Marbella mahogany. Kaia Gerber, daughter of the supermodel Cindy Crawford, made her catwalk debut last month at New York Fashion Week. She is 16, slim as a reed, wideeyed and olive-skinned. (“Too scrawny for me,” Rubens would say.)
Taste may be turning against the doll-like Kaias, however. Scientists from the Boston University School of Medicine have established that the average age at which we find women most beautiful is older than it once was. In 1990, the average age of celebrities in People magazine’s “Most Beautiful List” was 33.2. This year it is 38.9. Julia Roberts, the original Pretty Woman, was voted the overall most beautiful woman in the world. She is 49. The research also shows that we are more drawn to darker skin tones.
There is, of course, something preposterous about the idea that one sort of beauty is “in” or “out”. Film and fashion conspire to create temporary fads for fantasy faces and bodies. This can be destructive. In any generation, some poor souls will starve, struggle into boned bodices, submit to the surgeon’s knife to conform to a fleeting notion of “Beauty”. Most of us, though, smile bravely through crooked teeth and hope to find friends, lovers, partners who think us beautiful, warts, wrinkles and all.
Should looks matter anyway? Be kind, be funny, be clever – and sod the scales. “She could not help being ugly; she could not afford to buy pretty clothes,” moans the self-pitying Doris Kilman in Virginia Woolf ’s
Mrs Dalloway. Yes, but she can help being sour, sulking and ill-tempered.
If ever today’s narrow definition of beauty, filtered on Instagram or Photoshopped on magazine covers, gets me down, I give myself the gallery treatment. It is more effective than saying positive affirmations in the mirror. There is Mrs Arnolfini, pale as a ghost, in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. There, Thomas Gainsborough’s dancer Giovanna Baccelli, with her too-long nose and heavy rouge. And, there, Ingres’s commanding Madame Moitessier. Not thin, not pretty, not young. But, oh, what presence, what taste, what charm, what a frock!