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Exploring the relationship between vanity and femininity in art

What does it really mean to be ‘feminine’?

By Aoife Soni

Vanity, beauty, and fragility seep through the seams of millennia to sculpt the subconscious ideal of what it means to be ‘feminine’. From the flowing drapery and chiselled faces immortalised in ancient marble to delicate oils of crimped silk and rosy cheeks, the image of the vain and the fragile remains uncharacteristically dominant in all but one respect: it dominates the modern (and indeed the past) idea of what it is to be feminine.

In the exploration of vanity in the portrayal of femininity, it is necessary to determine whether this theme, which has been so alarmingly present throughout history in the artistic portrayal of women, offers an accurate depiction or, rather, a male artist’s idealised view. Is the long-accepted and praised image of a delicate girl perched in front of a dressing table really more feminine than that of a broad and matronly figure tending to children, indifferent to the state of her stained apron, or even more feminine than statues laden with gleaming breastplates, standing victorious?

Given the resounding impact of classical civilisations on modern Western ideals, examining the art of antiquity lends itself to clarifying the origin and development of femininity. Whilst in ancient art there is generally no direct correlation between female figures and vanity, there may be a more subtle, macrocosmic link. Common qualities recurring throughout the Hellenic and Roman periods in both art and mythology were greatly influenced by a woman’s place in society, with the average woman found in the home, occasionally taking part in light, domestic activities.

By Aoife Soni

There exists a multitude of divine female characters in Greek religion and mythology (and consequently art), such as Athena, often possessing great wisdom and control over destiny or presenting jealous, charming, manipulative characters – it could be presumed that these strong women should sculpt our modern-day ideas of femininity.

Many mortals in ancient literature and art were presented in a mellower light. A fine example is Homer’s classically idealised ‘Phaeacia’ (Odyssey 6), often seen to represent a ‘perfect’ society, in which the domestically inclined Nausucaa, her mother, and her female attendants are presented as pursuing suitably domestic, feminine activities, such as weaving and clothes-washing, prior to the beautiful, naïve, and innocent Nausicaa easily being manipulated by the courageous and cunning Odysseus, and ultimately (implicitly) falling for our rugged hero. This depiction of the meek and docile female figure is, somewhat disconcertingly, the principle image of women reflected in later art and society.

On a more pragmatic level, the representation of women adopted in later art, particularly in the romantic period, may merely be a result of their ancient and subsequent lifestyle. With few rights or responsibilities (this legacy of women leading domestic lives still managing to grasp onto its established place even in modern day culture and society), women historically had far more time for self-indulgence, ultimately leaving far more potential for vanity to develop.

Perhaps more potently, even as late as the 19th century, the lives of many women were dominated by a singularly paramount requirement: marriage. With the shame of women failing to secure a husband in ancient society projected onto later western society, marriage historically became a prominent objective for many women. This resulted in many women wanting to appear desirable to men, altering themselves to reflect classically admired qualities, such as innocence, purity, and beauty, as described above. Hence, the very concept of what we consider as ‘femininity’ was fundamentally doomed to ultimately reflect the inclination of men.

For the vast majority of us who are not gifted at birth with such sought after (yet arguably unattainable) attributes, vanity and its siblings provided a medium for our ancestors to venture closer to that coveted state. Inevitably, vanity was used by women as a way of appearing to be the perfect husband’s perfect wife, as it became associated with the more visible, superficial qualities which we might call ‘femininity’.

By Aoife Soni

These superficial qualities are particularly visible in art. Being a visual art form (the sole purpose of which, for many, is merely to be beautiful), to present the classic image of ‘femininity’ would lead artists from Phidias to Leonardo Da Vinci to John William Waterhouse to glorify beauty and feminine innocence, and therefore ultimately portray vanity in their masterpieces. Even art such as Egon Schiele’s raw representations of societal tragedy does not escape from highlighting the alleged fragility of the female form and maintaining a subtle aspect of feminine vanity.

What must be established is that very, very few women can associate absolutely with the ‘Goddess’ image: wise, manipulative, cunning, and divinely in control – nor can they associate absolutely with the mortal: demure, naïve, and passive. That is because throughout history, as is exacerbated through fine art, often hyperbolically symbolising, idealising, or monumentalising subjects, this view of femininity (generally associated with the latter demure mortal) is conflicting.

Femininity is not an instruction of prescribed qualities, nor is it an unfathomable intrinsic quality. As a society of individuals, to be feminine means something different to every woman and that is the elusive beauty of true femininity.

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