Did Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really idealize fat (Rubenesque) women?  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Did Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really idealize fat (Rubenesque) women? Jaime Confer and Devendra Singh of the University of Texas at Austin do not agree with this widely held belief. They conclude that "preponderance of Baroque artists did not share Rubens’ inclination to paint heavy women. Rubens’ paintings appeared to be more of an exception rather than a prevalent artistic trend" and that Rubens's paintings reflect his "personal taste rather than the trend of society."

"There are many widely held beliefs about what is considered beautiful and the nature of beauty that are rarely critically examined. One such belief is the claim that what we presently judge as unattractive was once considered attractive. Almost exclusively, the evidence presented to justify this notion contrasts Rubens’ (1577-1640) paintings of fat women with present-day idolization of thin women. It is not clear whether Rubens’ paintings represent a sixteenth and seventeenth century European ideal of beauty or if they represent his personal predilections. If indeed Rubens was depicting societal exemplars of beauty, one would expect a significant proportion of Baroque artists to also portray attractive women as heavy-set. If, however, Rubens is found to portray atypical depictions of women for that era, one would conclude that Rubens’ paintings reflect his personal taste rather than the trend of society. To examine this issue, independent judges compared European paintings from 1500-1650 with Rubens’ paintings to determine whether other artists painted women as fat or fatter than those in Rubens’ depictions. Results showed that the preponderance of Baroque artists did not share Rubens’ inclination to paint heavy women. Rubens’ paintings appeared to be more of an exception rather than a prevalent artistic trend. We also measured the waist-to-hip ratio of women in the paintings to determine whether artists violated depictions of a feminine waist-to-hip ratio (i.e., < .80). Results showed that women were consistently depicted within the typical range."offline

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