The Three Graces: Women’s Bodies in Art

Hey!  I feel like it’s been *years* since I last posted, and I miss you!  Everything is working together pretty well in my corner of the universe, and soon I’ll have some new, pretty, shiny patterns to show for my time spent being a hermit in my drafting cave.

Three Graces

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I don’t put much value in modern representations of women in the media- “fashion” photography portraying anorexic teens, predatory advertising that exploits our insecurities, shallow representations of femininity in entertainment and trumped-up cultural clashes such as the famous “Mommy Wars.”

(What a joke, amirite?  Wait, wait, I’m supposed to aspire to conform to these images, tropes, and caricatures flung at me?  That’s definitely a joke.)

I like to look for strong, positive representations of femininity elsewhere.  One of my favorite places to mine is art history, and lately I’ve been really inspired by the artistic tradition of the Three Graces:

click for source

click for source

The Three Graces are ancient daughters of Zeus and handmaidens to the goddess of Love, Aphrodite.  They’ve flitted through poetry, sculpture and paintings for the past 2000-odd years, subtly shifting shapes and changing their names to reflect the ideals of the artists they inspire.  Depending who you ask, their names are Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer or else Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance) and they represent qualities from charm to fertility to creativity.

The Metropolitan Museum says: “They bestow what is most pleasurable and beneficent in nature and society: fertility and growth, beauty in the arts, harmonious reciprocity… They enjoyed venerable cults in Greece and Asia Minor. In mythology, they play an attendant role, gracing festivals and organizing dances.”

Three Graces, Many Forms

The Graces play a supporting role in art, providing inspiration to artists and an idealization of admirable traits, embodied in the shame-free nudity of the female form.  I especially love how the Three are represented as separate entities, different in their own ways and yet each a part of a harmonious whole.  To me, this is an excellent representation of the power of female collaboration- three individuals combine to create a timeless icon portraying ideals that inspire artists even today.  I like this much more than I like Mommy Wars and body-snarking on people who are fatter/skinnier/prettier/uglier than me.

The Three Graces are comfortable in their skins and at peace with each other.  They are idealized, but imperfect.  To me, that speaks of deep beauty, that beauty which can’t be seen but is felt.

The Three Graces

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to post some of my favorite representations of the Three Graces and write a little reaction to the work, focusing mainly on the Three Graces in painting.  It is not my intention to write a series of scholarly art history posts.  Instead, I’d rather start some friendly discussions with y’all about the changing nature of female beauty (physical and spiritual) through the centuries and how that can relate to us today in our image-obsessed culture. I think it’s also a great way to add a little variety in our visual diets.

Would you like to play?  What do you think about these Graces?  They’re Roman, 2nd century, housed at the Metropolitan Museum and fairly representative of classical depictions of the Graces in sculpture.

Front View

I look at this and see nudity without lust, beauty without perfection, a marble representation of fairly ordinary female bodies with no faces but still exuding personality.  There’s no eroticism, no symmetry in their arrangement.  In fact I think I can see a little bit of “back squidge” on our Graces!  Yet there they stand- sinuous, graceful, timeless.   They’re blank marble, ready to receive our projections of female Grace.

What names would you give your own Three Graces?  I think mine are Joy, Mirth, and Creativity.


19 comments

  1. What I first see in this sculpture is how their arms are draped on each other. They want to be near each other, touching each other, in a a very familiar and comfortable way. But, there is also an element of protection. Look at how they have shielded each other shoulders. It is a very loving, nurturing posture.

    • Yes! I think that’s one of the reasons I return to the Three Graces, that comfortable sisterhood they represent is so much more attractive to me than the competitive “skinny bitch” mindset that seems so popular. Did you ever see this photoshoot: http://issuu.com/plusmodelmag/docs/plus_model_magazine_plus_size_january_2012/61 My favorite photo is of the plus sized model tenderly cradling a standard runway model…. It’s challenging, but I think it also speaks of a higher ideal to hold ourselves to, something beyond the circumference of our waistlines… :)

      • yes, I did! And, what struck me is it seemed like the standard runway model was a child and the plus sized model was holding her, protecting her. Like she was too frail and needed someone to protect her.

        • Yes… And the world is full of frail young women who need protecting from predation, methinks… I actually teared up the first time I saw that photo, though my husband thought it was just cheap sensuality. But I think there’s more to it than that.

  2. I am so glad to read one of your posts again! And I love the idea of rambling through art history for variety in our visual diets. There is a real calmness and solidity to these Graces. Their postures are confident and comfortable in their own (marble) skins, but in a completely unselfconscious way. Sadly, the heads and hands were most likely lost in the intervening centuries, but I imagine their expressions would have been beautifully serene.

    • It’s good to write again, thanks for coming by! :) I think it’ll be interesting to wander a little, too, because it’s really easy to look around at the world the way it is today and think that’s the way things have always been… I see serenity in the sculpture too, and a kind of mythical, legendary deathlessness…

  3. I love the sisterhood in those pictures, the shoulder to lean on. I also love the grace in their poises – the confidence in themselves and in their sisters. My three graces are joy, creativity and nurture.

  4. Interesting challenge and it’s a pleasure to read/hear your voice again! The three lovelies remind me of joyful creation, the bounty to make it happen and the time and mind frame to settle down and do it. I tend to get distracted by the pragmatic chores of life–marketing, cooking, cleaning–and must make time for the more fun and challenging tasks of invention, sewing, reading, writing, and painting. We live in a culture that is not only squeezing healthy women into a nasty box, but also undervaluing creative work and time. A ‘live and let live’ attitude of joy and tolerance would free more women to feel better about their lives and bodies, since so many of us spend so much time on the pragmatic cares of others. A woman who is feeding, cleaning, and managing family life (and/or professional life) for others shouldn’t be expected to produce great masterworks in the odd ten minutes she might have weekly; she should be supported for making that ten minutes her own. Dance on!

    • Oooh- That’s a really interesting way to put it…!

      Well, I think it’s easy for many people to undervalue creativity, but like you said it’s really nice to take the time to make/read/be creative… I think that creative impulse is very human, and it seems to me like most women are by their natures and biology creators/makers….

      As for “live and let live,” I used to make myself really unhappy being judgemental about other people. I don’t know why really, maybe like trying to convince myself that I was “good enough” or something… But it takes a lot of energy, and at some point I realized that I had quite enough to do to take care of myself, my choices, and my family without trying to enforce my values on other people.. So now (and for years) I just try to do the best I can with what I have and give others the space to do the same… Usually! :)

  5. Thanks for enlightening me about the three graces. I attended three different school systems from 8-10th grade and somehow missed out on learning mythology. Each school system did mythology in a different year – I guess it could have ended up the other way around, and I could have had 3 years of mythology! I enjoyed reading this post and look forward to exploring more art with you. (i’m always learning new stuff from you, and I love it!) I would say my three graces are grace, enthusiasm, and contentment. As for body image, I have always been super skinny and tall and very self-conscious. I was always taller than everyone and always felt awkward. I look back at old pictures of myself and cringe to see how I would slouch and stoop to make myself shorter. It’s taken me a lot time to accept and embrace who I am. But I’ve come a very long way — I even married a man who is shorter than me. :)

    • I was really into folklore as a kid, always reading *everything* I could about myths and legends and fairy tales… I think we’ll have a little fun here, looking at the same theme rendered by many different artists..

      What a great insight, looking back at old photos… I’m not tall myself, but understand how it could feel “weird” to be taller than everyone. Good for you for embracing who you are! :) I look forward every time to seeing how my designs work on your frame, you’re so tall and willowy.

  6. What a great starting point for discussion!

    Like previous commentors, what struck me first was the posing. The gentle touching that seems to show the connection between the Graces, the protection they offer each other and solidarity that lends itself to confidence because you know someone has your back. Sure they seem relaxed and happy, but I bet they would be like two mama bears if the third one was picked on.

    I’m also reminded of a photo collection I saw somewhere, I’ll have to track it down. It’s a picture of maybe 4 or 5 sisters, taken once a year from their late teens/early twenties into their 50’s. It’s incredible to see the changes in these very normal women and the connection between them.

    Fashions change, hair changes, but there is power in the relationship between woman that transcends it all. That seems to be missing in media that seems to pit women against each other.

  7. Pingback: Botticelli’s Three Graces in Primavera: Golden Bellies « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  8. I went to the V & A recently and saw the Three Graces sculpture by Canova. Their arms are also intertwined and they are side by side,facing each other which is unusual as normally they face out to the viewer. They also have linked hands and a scarf which drapes around them all. I really like this image of unity. I would speculate that men of this era would have found this image uncomfortable, threatening even. Another topic for discussion methinks?

  9. What I mean is why do we find it so hard to celebrate our uniqueness and rejoice in our similarities.


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