“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).

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