Monday, March 23, 2015


I think I’ve mentioned before that I love going to art exhibitions and London is of course the ideal place for that.  Each year the large galleries put on some lovely and varied shows and last week I was lucky enough to see two of them – Pieter Paul Rubens (“Rubens and his Legacy”) at the Royal Academy and John Singer Sargent (“Portraits of Artists andFriends”) at the National Portrait Gallery.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Rubens, a brilliant painter who lived between 1577 – 1640, was a master of portraiture and taught Anthony Van Dyck (my personal favourite, who I think actually surpassed his master).  He also excelled at landscapes, religious paintings and mythological depictions, using colour and sensuality in a way that many artists have tried to copy since.  Mostly though he is associated with the word “rubenesque”, ie he depicted naked women with lots of curves they were not ashamed to show off.  He apparently specialised in painting white skin, using techniques that made it look almost translucent.  The viewer can sometimes see the veins and it’s as though you feel the warmth of the soft flesh of these attractively plump ladies.  Very clever, although personally I preferred his formal portraits where the sitters were clothed (albeit still with a lot of bosom on show!).

However, it’s not the fact that he painted naked ladies, but the shape of the women that most people find fascinating as it’s so different to the current ideals and fashions.  This was a time when plump, rounded shoulders and breasts were the preference and with the rest of their bodies covered up, everything else must have seemed irrelevant.  No obsessions with "abs" here, no worries about cellulite.  That sounds rather liberating, but no doubt the ladies back then had other concerns – were they round enough, were their eyes the right shape and size, their mouths small and perfect, their hair curly and luxurious ...?  Every age has its own restrictions and we are ever slaves to fashion.

Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
John Singer Sargent’s paintings couldn’t have been more different, although there are definitely similarities as well.  He lived between 1856 – 1925 and in his compositions are found cool, elegant Victorian, Edwardian and early 20th century ladies, still covered up by long dresses, but with a much slimmer silhouette and painfully small waists.  There are still creamy, bare shoulders and arms, but not as round.  The preferred skin tone is translucent white, as before, the busts on display often impressive.  To me though, these ladies have more character somehow, staring defiantly at the viewer.  No large limpid eyes here, more the knowing looks of someone who knows she is attractive.  Or is that just my perception, because they are closer to our own ideals?  They certainly seemed a lot more vibrant, although that could be simply because Sargent was a genius.  (Some of his paintings look so real I expected the sitters to step out of their frames and talk to me any second).

When writing historical fiction it’s often difficult to depict a heroine who is of her time and yet appeals to a modern audience.  We can do it by getting into their mindset and not let them act contrary to the rules and customs of the time, even though we might add a bit more feistiness and wilfulness than would perhaps have been the norm.  And there’s always the tropes of “she was educated by her father because he didn’t have a son” or “she was allowed to sit in on her brother’s lessons with his tutor” to account for her being cleverer than the average lady at the time.  But what about their looks?

I have to admit that I’m in the middle of a story set during the English Civil War (ie. 1640s, so just after Rubens’ lifetime), but I don’t want my heroine to look like Rubens’ perfect woman.  Instead she’s slim, lithe and with the sort of curves we prefer now.  Is this wrong of me?  I don’t know, but I’m sure there must have been women of all shapes and sizes, then as now, and those who worked hard for a living (and life was hard for the majority of them) wouldn’t have had a chance to get plump.  That was for the idle aristocratic ladies whose idea of exercise was to take a slow amble round their magnificent gardens or perhaps play a game of bowls, not exactly taxing.  My heroine, on the other hand, is a lot more active, so I’m sticking with my original description of her.  Though perhaps I’ll add some more lustre to her skin and make her eyes bigger, mouth a perfect cupid’s bow … :-)

What do you think?

Christina x


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree with you about Sargent's portraits - I love them - but I have to say that, although I love Rubens' landscapes, I don't care for his depiction of women which tends to be too voyeuristic for me. I can see exactly why men rave about them - all that luminescent flesh - but have you noticed how ravaged the men look in his Fete Champetre paintings? And there are so few of them - men I mean - compared with the number of fleshy women lolling about displaying their charms.

The message seems to be, if you're a man, 'Don't worry about being past your sell by date - there are all these deliciously fleshy women just waiting for you. Take your pick.'

I rather agree with you about Van Dyck - I certainly prefer his women with their large seductive eyes which look as though they don't miss a thing.

Good luck with your Civil War book, Christina. It sounds great. I hope Prince Rupert makes a guest appearance!

Christina said...

Thank you, Elizabeth - Prince Rupert may be mentioned :-)

I agree about the men in Rubens' paintings, they were obviously a man's daydreams/fantasies.

In the exhibition there is a portrait by Van Dyck hanging next to a very similar one by Rubens and that confirmed it for me - definitely prefer Van Dyck! Glad you do too :-) xx