“Is she pregnant, or just out of shape?” Misogyny and description in art history

Rosso Fiorentino, Female NudeThere’s nothing really known about this  drawing in the Uffizi by Rosso Fiorentino. It’s generally dated for stylistic reasons to the early 1520s. In red chalk, it portrays a woman – naked apart from a ring of pearls around her neck and the jewels in her unravelling hair – pointing with her right hand to something beyond the picture plain, whilst her left hand is placed on top of her head. Many commentators have found this woman’s body shape puzzling. In the words of the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, “is she pregnant or just out of shape”?

For me, it doesn’t seem puzzling at all – the woman is neither pregnant, nor out of shape, but her body reveals its own history, a history of pregnancy. This woman’s rounded stomach is a reminder of past pregnancies, a stomach that is familiar to many women today too, but tends to be hidden or perceived as an anomaly to be “remedied” by stomach crunches or plastic surgery. Rosso, rather than making an idealised nude form that has no relationship to time, shows a body that, I think, is hauntingly beautiful, but built into time, particularised but also universal in showing the rounded but softened belly that is familiar to most women who have given birth. It’s telling that this shape is largely missing from our familiar visual vocabulary of femininity – where slenderness and pregnancy are both acceptable, expected, but an interim state is somehow shocking. Is the internet  helping to remedy this?

The other, more famous, example of a formerly pregnant belly in renaissance art is Michelangelo’s Night. The language used by art historians to describe this older woman is often startlingly hostile and casually misogynistic – with reference to her spent, flaccid abdomen, her “tired” breasts, or the distortion of her body (distorted from what perceived norm?). In the Renaissance, this sculpture was praised for its beauty. Why does modern western culture view the post-pregnancy female body with such distaste? Would the history of art history have been the same if it had been largely written by mothers?

Image “Night … is a woman who has passed through many pregnancies. Those deeply delved wrinkles on the vast and flaccid abdomen sufficiently indicate this” (John Addington Symonds)

“a slumbering female of mature years whose spent breasts and slack belly have led many observers to characterize her as a mother” (Edith Balas)

“heavy-limbed Night, with her tired breasts and creased belly” (Honour and Fleming:)

“The figure’s weary yet still distressed and agonized form, her distended abdomen and breasts, testifies to the history of a different “interior” life, the life of a body that has brought forth and nourished other bodies, even if it is now barren” ( Kenneth Gross)

“brutally masculine proportions, with hanging breasts and wrinkled abdomen” (Metheny Robb and Janes Garrison)

Whereas Day is a Virgin with “firm high breasts”, Night is a mother, “whose abdomen and breasts are distorted by childbirth and lactation”. (Frederick Hartt)

“her worn-out body with its sagging breasts and loose abdominal muscles”. (Bernard Samuel Myers:)

Night has the “pendulous breasts and slack stomach muscles of a woman who has borne children” (Dixon)

“disturbingly masculine” Night’s elongated chest and stomach resemble “a shapeless trunk cut across with four horizontal furrows” (Yael Even).

Night’s “lean, lithe, and washboard-muscled body seems distinctly male, save for the unusual length of her torso, the fullness of her hip, and the breasts that hang like sacs from her board-flat sternum. Their distended nipples have been sucked so deeply that they have begun to deflate, as has her will”. (Eric Scigliano).

About jillburke

I'm Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, in the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. I'm currently writing a book called How to Be A Renaissance Woman, about make up, body care and hygiene in the sixteenth century. My last book, on the Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale University Press) was out in 2018, and I was also involved in the exhibition on The Renaissance Nude at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Royal Academy in London 2018-19. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book.
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32 Responses to “Is she pregnant, or just out of shape?” Misogyny and description in art history

  1. Mary says:

    Ovid, in Ars amatoria, noted that sexual positions could be used to highlight different bodily features or to conceal flaws: “If childbirth’s seamed your belly/ With wrinkes, then offer a rear/ Engangement, Parthian style. Sex has countless positions…” Book III, 783-785, tr. Peter Green. I have heard and read speculation that Botticelli’s “pear-shaped” women represent pregnancy, although it is curious that, as far as I can tell, the full and fleshy women of Titian are usually not described with reference to maternity (the soft bellies could, indeed, fit with the idea of a post-childbirth physique). Just to add a slightly random item–in the book on “Moda a Firenze, 1540-1580”–there is a photo of a “steel corset” of the type Eleonora di Toledo ordered in 1549, perhaps for “therapeutic purposes”–by that date Eleonora had been pregnant at least 9 times.
    I agree with your assessment of the Rosso drawing and of Michelangelo’s Night–some of Michelangelo’s males, of course, betray the passage of time, and sometimes his male figures sport a less than ripped torso.

  2. jillburke says:

    I hadn’t seen the Ovid passage – that’s fantastic! I’m also interested in how the body can be used to show time passing in what we normally think of as an idealising and timeless form – do you think it’s perhaps less obvious in his male figures than this very clear reference in Night (also if she does have a cancerous breast as Jonathan Nelson’s suggested)? I wonder about the aesthetic of the pear-shaped stomach and, as you say, if it’s not related to current pregnancy but to the fact that a woman has had a baby, to previous and potential fertility – I’m not sure. Presumably many women would have been pregnant for much of their lives post-marriage, so flat stomachs would have been unusual.

    I think I’d need a steel corset if I’d been pregnant 9 times… twice, frankly, has been enough!

  3. marc says:

    A beautiful drawing, and I find the parallel with Michelangelo’s Night particularly appropriate. Rosso’s woman is clearly one half of a couple, in which the other member was on the missing left side of the page. I would say that she could be Diana / the Moon, so maybe the other half was the Sun, as in this painting by Cranach (in which the Goddess also is naked and wearing a necklace):

    Could the soft belly be a symbol of the generative power of the Moon? Anyway, nothing to do with being “out of shape”: you have an excellent point.

    • jillburke says:

      Thank you for this extremely useful comment. I agree that there seems to be another half that we are missing! The connection with Diana is a very interesting one; though frustrating in some ways, as I wonder if it’s anything we will ever really know for sure about? Yes, the soft belly as relating to generative power is convincing. Thanks for that – it’s also good way to think about Night’s belly, a poetic take on the possibilities of women’s bodies.

  4. eal4c says:

    Jonathan Nelson has been arguing for years that Night’s breast shows evidence of a tumor, which points to another kind of perceived deformation. Her breasts are not simply subject to the ravages of time in his estimation, but are diseased. Thank you for the Rosso – lovely!

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks for this – I have to say, though, I agree with Jonathan’s argument about the breast tumour, or at least think it is a very suggestive idea, as I don’t feel qualified to discuss the appearance of a tumour (for those who haven’t come across this, you can find it here. There can be beauty also perhaps in the notion of the body’s processes of aging and change, that may equally include cancer? I need to think a bit more about this! Anyhow, it certainly suggests that Michelangelo did directly observe naked female models, which I think is significant.

      • eal4c says:

        I don’t know how far I follow Dr. Nelson’s argument, but I think he might be right that there is something “not quite right” about that breast. I am currently writing a dissertation on Michelangelo’s female subjects, particularly the Madonna. Although often clothed, Michelangelo’s images of the Virgin show a great sensitivity to the female body, so I would not be shocked at all if he drew from female models.

        It occurs to me that a consideration of St. Anne might enrich the discussion of showing aging bodies in the Renaissance, as well.

    • Jonathan Nelson says:

      Jonathan Nelson here, and interested to hear about your dissertation on Michelangelo’s female figures. I’ll now writing up my piece on the Night…

  5. Mary says:

    Have you also considered physician Carlos Espinel’s analysis of Raphael’s “Fornarina” as a woman whose left breast shows signs of cancer? http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(02)11997-0/fulltext#article_upsell
    Regarding aging and the male body, does anyone else find it unusual that Joseph (or God the father?) has such a prominently bald pate in Michelangelo’s Doni tondo? Joseph was the object of less-than-orthodox jokes in medieval and early modern times–as the figure of the impotent older husband. Although he may be alluding to Joseph’s age, Michelangelo is clearly not emphasizing impotence, given the beautifully intimate posture of Mary seated between Joseph’s legs. Another interpretation is Rosso’s Marriage of the Virgin, where he shows a heart-throb as Mary’s future earthly husband.
    On the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo painted the prophet Joel as bald. Since you have brought this up, Professor Burke, it is obvious that artists were concerned to show humanity in its range of age, size, and aeshetic categories.

  6. Thank you for this fascinating account (and comments). Misogyny in art history? Surely not! I’m adding a link to your blog on my site.

  7. katt says:

    Okay am I the only person here who thinks Night is super obviously a man? I heard that most models back in these days were men because it wasn’t considered proper for a woman to pose like that. I really have no idea if that is true, but she looks like a man that Davinci slapped some breasts on. I’m not trying to be cruel, I just don’t believe that is a woman. As a woman who has spent a LOT of time naked around other woman, I have never seen a breast that looks even close to similar to that, including on mothers.

    • I also thought it looked like a man with breasts slapped on, or a woman with implants. There is definitely something wrong with that one breast. The only time I’ve seen anything remotely like that in nature was when one of my pets had an impacted milk duct and her teat got hard and swollen. I can get behind the tumor theory but it seems an odd attribute to put in a sculpture.

    • Tracy H. says:

      You’re not the only one! This is the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that this figure is modeled on an actual woman, with breasts of any kind. Considering it tumorous, too, seems a case of serious over-thinking.

  8. katt says:

    Or maybe what I mean to say is that it doesn’t appear that Night has anything to do with the appearance of post pregnancy bodies, because no woman who has passed through multiple pregnancies has a giant six pack. That statue looks so dissimilar from any mother I have ever seen, just like the statue of David or something. So, in that case, are the comments around the statue even comments about post pregnancy bodies in general? Or just comments about one really odd looking sculpture that doesn’t at all resemble anything real?

  9. I too noticed how muscley the woman is. I didn’t think it was a man but I thought of how both men and women worked really hard (physically) back in the day.

    So having extra fat can definitely be a sign of riches (less work, more food) but just because a female is represented really muscley it doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate representation of the female.

  10. Cheryl Lemus says:

    I just stumbled on this after I read you hair removal blog piece (fascinating btw) My dissertation is on the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th century America, so I loved this piece. I also write for a blog, Nursing Clio. I will definitely be following you and sharing your pieces on our FB site!

  11. mgu says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed that. Thanks!
    (PS: having had a “post-pregnancy” body since I was about 5 years old, I could say that actually, these women might not have even needed to go through pregnancy, these could possibly be bodies that have not been told to “suck your belly in”, bodies that have never worn low-cut jeans or done ab exercises).

    • jillburke says:

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, the point is I suppose that there’s no standard body, and that what might be considered the ‘norm’ only applies to a small minority of women for a short period of their lives.

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  23. Thanks. Sharing with my facebook friends.

  24. Cesar Camba-Gonzalez says:

    I seem to remember that the Kama Sutta says that the ideal woman has to have at least three folds in her belly.

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