Examining the portrayal of female bodies in art

  • Post Author
    by Talk
  • Post Date
    Fri Apr 21 2023

By: Sarah Kirsch

Over spring break, I traveled to Italy with my family. We visited multiple art museums in Florence, including the Accademia Gallery of Florence (Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze), Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) and the Uffizi Gallery (Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi). 

The Accademia Gallery of Florence is home to Michelangelo's famous David sculpture, but there is an entire additional room dedicated to sculptures and plasters by other artists besides the renowned Renaissance sculptor. 

I recently attended a MJLC study group where we talked about the portrayals of bodies in art, specifically sculptures. We looked at the differences between nude sculptures of men and women, and it reminded me of the artwork I had seen weeks prior.

Photos taken by Sarah Kirsch.

As I ingested the many sculptures and paintings in the museums, I noticed that many of the sculptures of women were strikingly similar — poses that weren't as confident as the male counterparts, hands or objects that attempted to cover their breasts and often the addition of children stationed close by. 

Why does David stand tall and confidently as opposed to female statues' poses? PBS called David an “ideal male form combining heroic strength and human uncertainty.”

Historically, many old paintings play into these ideals of virginity or purity culture. Sculptures of women were often made for the male gaze, such as a woman posed to cover her breasts to shield herself from outside looks or to display a sense of purity.

One sculpture that stuck out to me was of a woman holding two doves in front of her chest. Her posture was notably slouched compared to male statues like David. Many religious groups associate doves with purity and innocence. Do female sculptures tell more of a story than just the idolization of their bodies? 

The male gaze is a concept that was coined by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey. It is defined as “placing women in the context of male desire.” 

Not only does a lot of art show women from the male gaze, but it also commonly portrays only one body type: the fully-developed, lusted-after female body. It doesn't follow real body types but ones that artists and society deemed idolized, such as a fuller body but smaller breasts. 

This can be harmful to women and also reinforces the “pure and beautiful” idea—the idea that the female form is an object of desire and only admirable when young and pure. 

“Why have there been no great women artists?” Linda Nochlin asked in 1971, posing to the world a vital question about the world of art. 

While the female body is often portrayed through artwork, it is rare to find a woman artist. Much of the pieces I saw in the Italian museums were made by men, as women were pushed out of creating art throughout history.

I spent a lot of time at the museums staring at the portrayals of women and trying to figure out why they were made and who they are designed to appeal to. 

The sculptures and paintings are undoubtedly beautiful and deserving of a visit, but it's also worth thinking deeper about the meanings behind them.