Throughout history there have been many changes in the standards and perceptions of male beauty in Western culture. The portrayal of the male form throughout time, in art and sculpture, reflects the culture’s morals, values, and beliefs, among other things. In paintings and sculptures, artists depict the qualities in men that are important to the time period of their works. Perceptions of male beauty and their image can also represent a person’s social status in society, such as being noble, rich, or both.
The male themes seen throughout art include heroes, the supernatural, biblical figures, and idealized bodies, to name a few. Some of the time periods that illustrate the importance of male beauty and image are the Baroque period, Neoclassical, Romanticism, Realism, the 20th century, and the present. The Baroque era began in Europe during the 17th century and was a time of religious conflict. This style in art was modified by different cultures in Europe to express the ideals and beliefs of each culture.
Three styles emerged that became known as Florid Baroque, Classic Baroque, and Restrained Baroque. Florid Baroque was based on Roman Catholic religious principles and beliefs, classic Baroque was chivalrous and aristocratic, and restrained Baroque was a simple style that depicted Protestant values. As with the three styles of Baroque, the male image varied slightly through each one but they all had a religious basis. Artists of this time also used different methods to reflect this. Although religious painting, history painting, allegories, and portraits were still considered the most noble subjects, landscapes, still-life, and genre scenes were painted by such artists as Claude Lorrain, Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem Kalf, and Jan Vermeer” (Bartleby). One work from Baroque period to analyze is The Conversion of St. Paul (1600-1601) by Caravaggio. As can be seen in this painting, Caravaggio used light and shadow to show off his subjects (Katya Gifford). This religious painting resembles the spiritual nature of saints during this time and resembles the male acceptance of Jesus.
It can also be noted that men in Baroque art were not portrayed in a traditional way as Caravaggio frequently chose his subjects right off the street (Neal McLaughlin). As Baroque art was associated with the Catholic Counter-Reformation (Buffalo. edu), the male image in Baroque art was meant to restore faith in the Catholic Church, such as how Paul was depicted in this painting embracing the light that resembles Jesus. As this painting represents St. Paul becoming the interpreter of Jesus, it illustrates the importance of men as biblical and mythical figures in this time.
The next time period to analyze the male image is the Neoclassical period. The Neoclassical style in art flourished in Europe and North America from about 1750 to the early 1800’s… (arthistory). A number of things helped prompt this interest: archaeological excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum; a number of books (with engravings) by travelers to Greece; and by the influence of Winkelman (the first art historian) who said the main qualities of Greek art were ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ (Bluffton. edu).
The Neoclassic style resulted out of The Age of Reason and had many characteristics of Enlightenment thinking. This style further developed classical humanistic ideals and put emphasis on balance, simplicity, and restraint. The male image portrayed in Neoclassical art depicts the ideal body image of classic Greek art. Such characteristics of the ideal Greek male depicted in art are “the slim but well-muscled torso, the elegant symmetry of form, [and] the balanced turn of the head” (Simon Goldhill). One preeminent painter of this movement was Jacques-Louis David with the painting The Oath of the Horatii, produced in 1784.
This is a classical style painting portraying the Horatii brothers swearing an oath in which they agree to fight against the Curatii to win the right to rule alba (bluffington. edu). This painting depicts men of this time as heroic as they do not appear to be phased by the death that may arise from their fighting. The bodies of these men show the importance Neoclassic society placed on portraying the ideal male body from Greece. “The male figures have taut muscles and determined gazes and the repetition of the male form symbolizes their unity and seriousness” (Bluffington. du). The men in this painting also appear statue-like, another characteristic of the Neoclassic male image. Transitioning from Baroque to Neoclassicism, the male form went from portraying the average, everyday male to focusing more on showing the strength and heroism of men. Continuing on after the Neoclassical period one can continue to see the male image in art evolve as well as societies changing standards and perceptions in the Romantic era. Romanticism rejected the ideals of Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment.
Western culture began to shy away from the order and reason of classical beliefs and became interested in natures unruliness, natural goodness of mankind, and emotional expression. Romanticism was also triggered by changes in science. In paintings, artists of Romanticism used a more expressive and individualistic style as opposed to the idealized image of Neoclassicism to portray their men. “In art and literature, ‘Romanticism’ typically refers to the late 18th century and the 19th Century” (reviewpainting. com) A romantic painting to analyze is Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818).
This painting shows the male figure alone in nature. He faces the other way so that the viewer can feel what he is experiencing as he looks out at the wonders of nature around him. This painting is mostly about the emotion when we realize that as humans we are so small next to nature. He is alone; it shows he is comfortable in his individuality to think and feel despite his social class or status. The romantic period focused less on the muscular, physical appearance of the human body, and more on the connection between the mind and body. We feel the power of the male figure rather than see it in his physique.
When we see this painting, we feel the man’s strength and his desire for the isolation in nature. The fact that we cannot see his face leads us to the conclusion that “anyone can achieve the same experience” (purdue. edu). The next period to look at is Realism, another 19th century art movement starting around the 1840’s. This style put emphasis on the lives of the people in the middle and lower classes. In Realism, the subjects depicted shifted from kings, aristocrats, heroes, and saints to the average everyday guy lacking an idealized figure.
Realism represented naturalism by illustrating the world as it was seen (Barbara Cavaliere). “Such an approach stresses perceptual experience as opposed to suggestive expression through metaphor or abstraction” (Cavaliere). One notable painter of this movement was Jean-Francois Millet whose work includes Man with a Hoe (approximately 1863) (getty. edu). This painting focuses on the male worker, more specifically the agricultural type. Men of this time were depicted exactly as they were; for example, peasants were portrayed as overworked and poor.
The man in this painting represents man’s acceptance of peasant life in this time because he doesn’t appear overly exhausted with visible frown lines (getty. edu). The painter doesn’t add anything that would incite sympathy from the viewer. Millet shows the man with a hoe just as he is, without adding extra emotion that may make the viewer feel the exhaustion the figure feels from a long day’s work under the hot sun. As men depicted in realism were not idealized as prior periods, he is shown wearing his worn out clothing covering up his skin to not expose features such as muscles, which would make him appear strong and masculine.
In the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the human figure was more associated with mysticism and perfection. Artists idealized what they saw of the male body. However, artists continued to change the depiction of the male figure going into the 20th century and present. Artists became more expressive during the 20th century with the rising of abstract art and cubism. Both types of art were more animated and emotional than the exact, definite paintings or sculptures of the male figure of the past; in fact, both styles rebelled against the traditions of realism.
Instead, cubism and abstract art emphasized “artist[s] expressing everything from personal feelings to universal, spiritual concerns” (Mark Hudelson). Abstract art and cubism were more popular in the early 20th century. One very famous painter of such styles was Pablo Picasso. His portrait called The Old Guitarist (c. 1903), depicts a poor man who appears to be suffering emotionally (allposters. com) This painting shows the importance society placed on men’s emotional side . This painting was done during Picasso’s Blue Period, during which he used different shades of blue as the dominant color as a way of expressing “human misery” (cgfa).
As time moves on into the present, a new art form emerges known as Post-modernism. This style of art was mostly influenced by science and the technological advances of today. “Just as modern culture was influenced by the industrial age, so post-modernism has had to deal with the electronic age” (Hudelson). Post-modernism art was very diverse, but mostly the art was used as a means of taking a stand on some political issue. It rejected the idea of all art being original because this art was a mixing of several various art forms.
Robert Longo is an American painter and printmaker. His work lithograph called Jules (2002) shows emotion of the male figure through its body stance. His work is an “investigation of stereotypical depictions of the individual’s alienation within a complex society” (broadartfoundation), hence the isolated figure. The twisted and fluid body found in Jules is a perfect example of typical Longo work. Many of Longo’s pictures depict “violent physicality and psychological angst motivated by a undefined source left to the viewer’s speculation” (broadartfoundation).
As seen in the past and the present, perceptions of the male image and the standards of male beauty have changed in many ways. The perceptions and standards of the male figure throughout time in art have allowed us to study the culture of the times. Through art it is revealed how the people viewed men, and we can see the characteristics they valued. Just like we saw during the periods of the Baroque, Neoclassical, Romantic, Realism, 20th century, and today, the male image can be heroic, biblical, or idealized, but it is not limited to just these.
Just like art of today and the past, the male image will continue to be depicted by artists in the future and will be representative of the time. Works Cited “Baroque / Baroque Revival”. 20 July 2007. http://freenet. buffalo. edu/bah/a/DCTNRY/b/baroque. html. “Baroque, in Art and Architecture”. 19 July 2007. http://bartleby. com/65/ba/baroque-art. html. “Blue Nude, Pablo Picasso”. 25 July 2007. http://www. allposters. com/-sp/Blue-Nude-c-1902-Posters_i335075_. htm. Broad Art Foundation, The. “Robert Longo”. 25 July 2007. http://www. broadartfoundation. rg/collection/longo. html. Cavaliere, Barbara. “Art Periods: Realism”. 25 July 2007. http://www. discoverfrance. net/France/Art/realism. shtml. Getty Museum. “Man with a Hoe”. 25 July 2007. http://www. getty. edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails? artobj=121. Gifford, Katya. “Baroque (1600-1750)” 20 July 2007. http://www. humanitiesweb. org/human. php? s=g&p=i&a=l&ID=36. Goldhill, Simon. “The Perfect Body; An excerpt from Love, Sex & Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes our Lives”. 20 July 2007. http://www. press. uchicago. edu/Misc/Chicago/301176. html. Hudelson, Mark. Movements in the Twentieth-Century Art After World War II”. 25 July 2007. http://daphne. palomar. edu/mhudelson/StudyGuides/20thCentLate_WA. html. “Introduction to Romanticism” 23 July 2007. http://web. ics. purdue. edu/~felluga/eng241/Romanticism/index. htm. McLaughlin, Neal. “Baroque Art”. 23 July 2007. http://virtualology. com/virtualmuseumofart/hallofartmovements/baroqueart. org. Neo-Classical Art. “Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825): The Oath of the Horatti 1784”. 20 July 2007. http://www. bluffton. edu/~humanities/art/18c/neoclscl/. “Neo-Classical Style (c. 1760 – c. 1850)”. 20 July 2007.