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

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - FOLLOW Laura Free­man on Twit­ter @ Lauras­free­man; READ MORE at tele­ opin­ion LAURA FREE­MAN

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!

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