Images of Women across Time and Space
Global Week C&C Lesson--January 2007


[ Peggy McKee Home Page ] [ Images of Women Lesson ] [ Global Reflections ]

What is beautiful?
Is it all in the eye of the beholder?
Is it determined by cultural norms?
Is there some universal standard?

For many years a standard of feminine beauty in the West (i.e. Europe) was symbolized by Botticelli's Venus in his The Birth of Venus, painted in 1483. ("The Birth of Venus" 1). Here she stands, blonde, willowy, "slim and long-limbed, with harmonious features" her beautiful wavy hair blowing in the wind! ("The Birth of Venus" 1)


In classical mythology, Venus is the goddess of both love and beauty; in Botticelli's rendering, her movements are graceful and melodious. Mark Harden quotes Gombrich's The Story of Art: she is so beautiful "that we do not notice the unnatural length of her neck, the steep fall of her shoulders and the queer way her left arm is hinged to the body..."(Harden). The end result, however, even 500 years later, is a graceful outline of beauty and harmony, enhancing an impression of "an infinitely tender and delicate being, wafted to our shore as a gift from Heaven" (Gombrich quoted in Harden). In the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, this Venus is reproduced on the cover of a fake book, Sacred Feminine. Do you think she's beautiful? Yes? No? Why?


By the 18th century, Marie Antoinette, as depicted by her favorite artist, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, can be seen in the classic pose of reigning monarch, formally coifed and dressed as befits the wife of the King. Is she beautiful? What about her outfit? What can you deduce about the values and culture of French high society. Consider the portrait as a primary source document and "SOAPA" it.
Five years later, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun painted another portrait, not an official one, but one that the Queen preferred. What do you think? What kind of image is Marie Antoinette trying to project? This portrait was considered shocking. Why? Has the criterion of beauty changed? Is Marie Antoinette similar to or different from Botticelli's Venus (aside from the clothes)?
And now what's happened? Has Marie Antoinette become more beautiful? If so, why? What is the "media spin" that she's hoping to achieve in the late family portrait by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun?

Moving to India--follow the link to look at the images of beauty

[ India ] [ India Link ]

Now visit Central America and the Maya culture--follow link

[ Maya ]

Let's briefly consider some African images
[ African Women ] [ African Art ]

Now, let's go to Japan. In the 18th century, contemporaneous with the era of Marie Antoinette in France, the "Floating World" of Tokugawa Japan--the Edo period--(1603-1868) developed and perfected a vision of female perfection--the geisha. The word geisha is Japanese: gei meaning art and sha meaning person--thus, a geisha is a "person of art" (Geisha 23). She is a magical creature, "painted, powdered, and coiffed, wrappef in layer upon layer of rich patterned silks..." (Geisha 24). She is a work of art, carefully crafted to evoke glamor, the past, erotic beauty, the pleasure quarters of the floating world. The geisha has gone through years of rigorous training in music, dance, the aesthetics of traditional Japan. She is, as the definition suggests, an artist and an entertainer. Here she offers a cup of tea to her patron.
In the 18th century (the same time as Marie Antoinette,) Geisha were forbidden to practice prostitution. Rather, they were adept at all aspects of entertaining their male guests, usually in a tea house, perhaps in the Gion quarter of Kyoto. When the evening ended, the geisha goes home to her okiya or dormitory where her behavior and actions are carefully monitored by a kind of house mother or "mama-san." What do you think? Are they beautiful? Why? Why not?
Moving back to Europe, in the 19th century, the feminine standard of beauty in Victorian England strikes the 21st century eye as contrived and artificial as the 18th century geisha. What do you think?

In the 20th century, another ideal of feminine beauty took hold, well, at least in Western Europe and the United States. Consider the "flapper" of the "roaring 20s." Go to the following website [ art deco]

And, last but not least, the present, American-dominated/Hollywood standard has truly swept the world. In this photo, Miss Turkey captured the Miss World crown in 2002. How does her victory encapsulate this week's globalization experience.


Geisha: Beyond the Painted Smile. Ed. by Peabody Essex Museum. Salem, MA: George Braziller, Inc., 2004.

Harden, Mark. "Sandro Botticelli." The Artchive. Online Available.
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"The Birth of Venus (Botticelli.)" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online Available.
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