Lately I’ve been blogging paintings in the Three Graces artistic tradition which show idealized versions of the female form that are quite different from modern standards of beauty. It’s easier for me to blog about art and women and bodies than the sewing right now, as I’m bringing a new set of patterns to completion and that takes up all my sewing-writing expertise…!
This version of the Three Graces was painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1531, and remained in private collections until the Louvre purchased it in 2010. Cranach was a German painter, and this small oil on wood painting was completed during a time when Cranach enjoyed great artistic and financial prosperity. He was the mayor of Wittenburg three times, and found success as a property developer.
In this version of the graces, Cranach paints the figures of the women in realistic detail against a sharp black backdrop, with a plain stone floor. This is not an allegory of love or an artistic exercise in harmony but a much more earthly painting showing off physical bodies and material wealth in stark black and white and red.
The eye is drawn first to the angelic, prim face in the middle. In fact, considering her setting the face is almost too angelic. I’m not an expert in 15th century German Women’s dress (jump in if you are!), but her netted hair and the hat suggest she’s both married and well-off. And what aplomb, standing there naked and serene, in nothing but a hat and necklaces! I nicknamed this one “Beauty,” following the convention found in earlier Renaissance paintings.
I decided this must be the “Voluptua” Grace. Her hair is down and flowing around her body (also a possible sign of maidenhood), she has a worldly-wise look on her face as she stares us down and stretches her leg like a runner prepares for a race:
I think I’m actually a little terrified of this Grace.
Our third grace has her back turned to us and a blank, dreamy look in her eyes. She has only one necklace and at least pretends to cover up in the saran-wrap veil Cranach provided, so I think she must be Chastity.
It’s important to remember that Cranach was a prolific artist, often delegating tasks in his workshop to apprentices and assistants. This work, however, bears no marks of this treatment, which means Cranach (uncharacteristically) did all of the work on this painting himself. It was for a private collection and probably cost a fair penny. To the artist and to the welathy patron, the lines and shapes of these bodies were worth immortalizing in oil on wood.
This backside with biggish thighs is a part of a masterpiece. The bodies themselves are objects of beauty and status, the same way that modern advertising sells us women’s bodies as objects of beauty and status. I suppose the difference is that in Cranach’s case, he wasn’t selling anything except the painting itself. (Maybe hats? It could be a hat advertisement…)
From a modern point of view, I know these ladies are definitely what might be considered “pear” shaped. They have tiny breasts, pouchy little tummies and thighs of varying widths. Chastity’s thighs would never be confused withhotdogs, and I doubt these Graces would be chosen for the cover of Vogue. Nonetheless, these girls/models/Graces were roughly the German Renaissance equivalent of high-fashion models.
I find Cranach’s Graces confronting and interesting, but my favorite description of this painting comes from Grit in the Gears. Maybe he’s onto something…
My two words for these Graces is “affluence” and “youth.” What are yours?
What do you see in these Graces? Ancestors of high-fashion models? Mere objects? Sharks? Or something else?