Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Camilla Webster

Why do painting and sculpture of fat women, valued in the millions, sit in the homes of art collectors whose skinny wives push around a piece of salmon sashimi and call it dinner for fear of rejection in those same walls?

It’s not hard to imagine a painting like Botero’s Man Going to Work, depicting a man leaving his obese wife and baby, hanging in the hallway of that same wife’s starving, Soul Cycle-d, Bikram burned toes on Park Avenue. This spring, in real life, it just sold for $1.4 million at auction at Christies in New York.

Why is corpulence, the curvaceous form, and imperfection shunned by New York culture, while the form itself is such big part of a hallowed history of art? Should we not be repulsed by those ladies of the past, too, and tear the very canvas from gilded frame?

I happen to currently be in London, and recently met up with an old friend from New York City. She hails from the 1990’s…an era of cocktails and gay parties along the rooftops of Manhattan. Rather than eat lunch, or eat at all, we decided to walk and look at beautiful things in London because we wanted to be skinny for summer.

She is a beautiful thing, a muse herself, her appearance almost mesmerizing, much like Dante Rossetti’s Lillith in Gallery 995 of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. As I picked “Lillith” up at her home, I glanced over at a painting of her own, twenty-something nude figure casually splayed in a contemporary oil painting, hanging on her sitting room wall. She has that thing about her that the artist paints and repaints — that other worldliness. You cannot stop staring at her, or get enough of the vowels that flow out of her like a Miles Davis movement.

We had tickets for the last day of the most popular, most reviewed, and important exhibit at the National Gallery, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice. So we decided to starve ourselves and marvel at the exquisite beauty of the curves of Veronese’s women. 

Their great beauty and the electrifying color of their robes caught my attention, but it was their size that entranced me. I was particularly struck by a painting called Allegory of Love, IV (The Happy Union) about 1575, and I picked up that card, dizzying with my own hunger to remember that exquisite size 14 vision of wife, being crowned for her perfection, as she represented everything that was good in the world. Crimson finery, lace, and jewels draping over an endless number of soft curves and glowing skin. I asked why the painter loves these shapes?

I knew the Colombian artist Botero once said, “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.” What was the Italian Veronese trying to say? I don’t know.

I did discover I wasn’t the only artist pondering these questions. Near the National Gallery in none other than Buckingham Palace, in the middle of the exhibit The First Georgians: Art & Monarchy 1714-1760, I stumbled upon a book by the British artist Hogarth called The Analysis of Beauty.

Hogarth believed, as explained in my audio tour by Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, “If it has a nice snaking S shape in it, it’s beautiful.  If it doesn’t, it’s not.” Hogarth hailed the importance of “leading the eye on a merry kind of chase.” The print on display — a study of various parts of the human form — seemed to show the pleasing nature of the curve to the eye. Of course women were strapped into all sorts of waist contorting contraptions, but curves had their place. My deduction: healthy women today have curves. I liked it.

The book was acquired for the Royal Library and is part of Google Books if you ever want a gander through it.

Going back to that same hungry lady on Park Avenue, she will be met with a giant woman again on the way into Time Warner Center’s Whole Foods to pick up that salmon: A Botero sculpture, considered among the top ten NYC public art installations.

I’d like to see three happy international ladies, in real life, doing lunch at BLT Steak downtown; a Miss Botero, a Miss Veronese, and a Miss Hogarth. I hope they invite Mrs. Park Avenue. I’d like to see them all smile…and eat. Let’s celebrate that. Let’s paint that. They’ll be society’s rejects that afternoon, but one day, someone might pay $1 million for that painting. Or maybe it will be so unusual it will just be considered priceless.

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