Cranach and Pear Shaped Sensuality

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…!

click to zoom

click to zoom

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.

Beauty's Face

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.

Voluptuas face

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:

Leg Stretch

I think I’m actually a little terrified of this Grace.

chatity's face

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…)

Sexy Little Pots

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?


  1. I utterly love knee bent girl, it’s such an eternally teenage pose. I think they are more attitude than actual trouble But yes, fascinatingly powerful and earthy. You have to love Cranach!

    • Do you? Hehehe. More attitude than actual trouble, I like that..

      I do love Cranach! He’s so… Well his style is very distinct, isn’t it? They used one of his nude Eves for the opening credits of Desperate Housewives…

  2. When I look at Cranach’s women, I sort of see what my own body looked like when I was 20 years old! But then, I think that many of my ancestors came from that part of the world originally. Got to love the early Renaissance guys for showing it like it is — and how fascinating to compare art from different parts of Europe. There truly are body archetypes in geographically diverse populations. Much more evident 500 years ago than in our own time, when travel and intermarriage is relatively easy.

    • Yes to everything, Lin. There’s still some pretty strong genetic body typing in Europe, less so perhaps than in the Renaissance but there’s definitely very distinct types and coloring…

      My husband has pale brown eyes, pale skin, and black hair… I never saw another person with that kind of coloring until a few years ago, we ran into some French guys from Normandy. They could have been twins, almost! Some of husband’s family hailed from Normandy via Scotland (Huguenots), and that Norman coloring lives on…

  3. I think an unexpected value of having art from hundreds or thousands of years ago is that we can see how ideas of female beauty have changed. My body is much more pear shaped than the modern ideal. I have a great memory of standing in an art museum years ago just staring and staring at one particular statue, because its body looked like MY body, and someone thought it was beautiful enough to carve in marble. Art as antidote to fashion magazines?

    • Yes, absolutely, I could not agree more. :)

      ART IS THE ANTIDOTE! Maybe we can get that printed on mugs and t-shirts or something… Spread the word… ;) But yes, definitely, I am sure one of the reasons I’m continually drawn to art is for precisely that reason… I used to really enjoy fashion mags in languages I can’t read, probably for a similar reason, though I haven’t done that for a while…

  4. My word for any of Cranach’s women would be “confidence”. There is a portrait of Venus and Cupid in the National Gallery in London, in which Venus (she may be the same model as Beauty) is wearing just a necklace and an outrageous hat: larger than this one and trimmed with white fur. It always makes me happy to see it.

  5. I LOVE Cranach because, well, that’s exactly what I look like (with a bigger bum). I have a print of one of his nudes in my bedroom to remind me that at least to somebody–maybe not today–I am the ideal in female beauty.

  6. Hi Steph. This is completely unrelated to this post, but I was wondering if you had an online discussion forum with your readers that I just haven’t found. I was looking for somewhere to get some assistance moving forward. I have just finished making your Tiramasu which was my first experience sewing with knit. Being adventurous, I have branched out to Simplicity 2145 because it looked sort of the same but different! Only I now I have ISSUES and was hoping to find some experienced knit sewers to help. Being a dress person, am dying for the Red Velvet experience to begin! Simply cannot wait :)

  7. Hi Steph,
    I’m wondering when Red Velvet will be available? Also, will it be just the dress or also the shrug and other items too? I seem to recall you mentioning the next release being a full collection. I’m planning my fall sewing and wanted to include the next Cake releases.

    • Yes, I’m planning to release Red Velvet from the 26th of this month. I’m prepping a post to help wardrobe planning, should be ready tomorrow. A preview. :) I also posted this to Cake’s Facebook page: Thank you for thinking of me, Jeri. I’m really really excited about this release!

      • Can’t wait and always will include Cake where I can. Not only are the patterns my style, but the sizing makes them much more straightforward to make. I also want to support Indie pattern designers that include a larger spectrum of sizing in their patterns instead of always having to figure out the grading stuff!

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