Rubens' Fleshy Females

by Joan Altabe

The Ringling Museum is known for paintings by Peter Paul Rubens who, in turn, is known for portraying fleshy females. Less known is that plump was far from his idea of a pin-up.

Rubens, the man, would have fit right in our age of weight-loss diets and workouts. The 17th-century painter was a dieter and physical fitness nut at a time when rotund was in and rail-thin was out.

It’s hard to imagine that such pudgy people were ever admired. But Rubens’ paintings of well-padded women were so popular that he had to hire a stable of assistants to help him keep up with the demand.

And while the women in Ringling’s Rubens are not bare, as they often are in Rubens’ paintings, you can still spot the poundage: in the beefy and deeply dimpled arm of a Lot daughter in ‘The Departure of Lot and His Family from Sodom’ and in the mountainous red-robed female in ‘The Triumph of Divine Love.’

When tastes changed and abundant flesh became unpopular, so did Rubens’ celebrity. American realist Thomas Eakins tagged Rubens’ weighty women “chamber pots.” American writer, Henry James, said the same thing—arguably in a nicer way: “There are fine painters and coarse painters and Rubens belonged to the latter category.” English art historian, Simon Schama, had his own term for the category. He called Rubens’ display of abundant flesh “a celebration of cellulite.”

Overlooked in these disparaging words is history. Full-figured women fit seamlessly into the 17th century. Clearly, you had to be there. The art of the time, known as Baroque, was the stuff of overblown color and shape. Florid, full-figured females were ripe for the time.

Even so, Rubens would have agreed with his critics. He didn’t paint big women because he liked them that way; he did it for the money, as a sales pitch in disguise for Catholicism. Rubens got very rich painting large women.

That’s because the Catholic Church, in competition with Protestantism for converts, hired him to appeal to the illiterate masses. As early as 1563, the Council of Trent decreed that art be recruited in the war for converts by appealing to the senses. Rubens used female flesh the way advertisers use it today—as agitprop, a selling point.

Big-breasted, big-hipped figures were also a sign of fertility, not unlike the wide-angled and pendulous-breasted Venus of Willendorf sculpture in pre-history. Ample proportions were viewed as desirable. But again, not to Rubens.

A strict weight-watcher, he regulated his eating accordingly. His nephew, Philip Rubens, disclosed the painter’s regimen to art historian Roger de Piles. Rubens rose at 4am and throughout the day did whatever it took to work, without damage to his health. He ate little at dinner, so that his time at his easel wouldn’t be impeded by digestion. He painted until 5 in the evening, and then went out on horseback to take the air. When he returned, he joined friends at his house for dinner, such as it was.

Rubens’ friends knew well his dislike of excessive drinking or eating. His letters show him faulting them for neglecting their physical fitness:

“The chief cause of the difference between the ancients and men of our age is our laziness and life without exercise: always eating, drinking and no care to exercise our bodies. Therefore, our lower bellies, ever filled by a ceaseless voracity, bulge out overloaded, our legs are nerveless, and our arms show the signs of idleness. In antiquity, on the contrary, men exercised their bodies every day in the palaestra and the gymnasium—to say the truth, even too strenuously—til they perspired and were thoroughly fatigued.’’

This from a man who was so wealthy he lived like a king. Unlike the overeating Henry VIII of England, though, Rubens lived a Spartan life. Apparently, so did his wife, Isabella Brandt. His self-portrait with her, ‘Rubens and Isabella Brandt in a Honeysuckle Bower’, shows her with a narrow waist and rather flat chest—far and away from the doughy legs, distended bellies and broad backsides of his painted ladies.

Equally unexpected are the models that Rubens used to paint these puffy bodies. Would you believe stone statuary from Old Rome? He gave his reasons in an essay on the decline of art in his time:

“What else can our degenerate race do in this age of error? Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients…whether we are irretrievably enfeebled because the world is growing old, or else that in antiquity natural objects, being nearer to their origin and perfection, spontaneously presented undivided those beauties which now, disfigured by alterations resulting from the debasement of our aging centuries, they no longer retain.”

Of course, if painters are to make stone look like flesh, they need to make some adjustments. Rubens wrote this cautionary note to them:

“Shadows especially are different from what one sees in nature; flesh, skin, and cartilage by their translucency, in many cases, soften the abruptness of the edges of black patches and shadows, which the stone of statues, on the contrary, by its opacity inexorably makes doubly abrupt… In the highlights, also, statues are quite unlike anything human, for they have a stony luster and a harsh brightness which give the surface a more pronounced relief than is right, or, at any rate, dazzles the eyes.”

Apart from advise about toning down the intensity of highlights found in Old Rome’s stonework, Rubens was mum about tacking on the pounds missing in such stonework. But tack he did, and it matters to this day. A fashion term for big women is ‘Rubeneque.’ •

from the September-October 2006 issue

The Triumph of Divine Love

Rubens didn't paint big women because he liked them that way; he did it for the money.
The John and Mable
Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Rd
The Gathering of the Manna

Rubens' self-portrait with his wife shows her with a narro wwaist and rather flat chest — far from the doughy legs and broad backsides of his painted ladies.