For all his virtues, John Singer Sargent distorted the female form as cynically as any modern adman. His society women are absurdly tall and lanky. They are depersonalized mannequins for the fantastic clothing that was his (and their) real interest.
He was hardly alone. From Nefertiti to the modern era, women’s figures have been manipulated in art in ways the male form never experienced. The vast majority of major artists have been male, and yet they followed fashions in the feminine figure as avidly as women do.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was known for painting “Rubenesque” women—a term that harks back to Peter Paul Rubens’ penchant for voluptuousness. Rubens was operating well within the convention of Baroque art when he painted women as soft, fertile, passive, and sexually tempting. However, he and his peers also saw women as the repository of virtue and as powerful role models.
Renoir, on the other hand, didn’t like women. He found them disagreeable, amoral, childlike and instinctual, according to his friend Georges Rivière. This shows in the bovine blankness of his female faces.
The first artist to set out to create a fashionable guide to feminine beauty was Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl. His icon was fragile and delicate in the hips and arms, yet voluptuous in the proportions of her massive chest. Her S-shaped body curve and wasp waist were only truly achievable through Gibson’s pencil, although corsets and padding came close. Her neck was thin and her hair piled high on her head in a ‘waterfall of curls.’ And while she was vivacious and feminine, she was also chaste.
By the 1920s, she was replaced by the cigarette-smoking, cocktail drinking flapper, a direct rebellion against the artifices of Victorian and Edwardian culture. Hair bobbed, the flapper wore dresses that fell straight to the waist. To achieve this, the fashionable body was flat-chested and narrow hipped. And, needless to say, the flapper ditched her granny’s restrictive undergarments.
This see-sawing motion between voluptuousness and androgyny has stayed with western culture for almost 150 years. We went from the sex siren of mid-century to naïfs like Twiggy to boodylicious and heroin chic. What has been conspicuously absent both in art and celebrity imagery has been ‘normal.’ No wonder society is confused about gender.