Virgin Bride

The reclining female is a familiar image in visual art. My version adheres to standards of beauty that have dominated western culture for centuries. My drawing is made with graphite and gouache on paper, featuring a bride on her wedding night. The figure is based on a stock photo that reminded me of Italian Renaissance cassoni imagery. While the exteriors of wedding chests were often painted with continuous narratives from mythology or history, the underside of many lids featured erotic nudes. Although the entire cassone was decorated with didactic metaphors to educate a bride, the interior was meant to assist in the couple’s sexual union and inspire the conception of children. Cassoni (or as they were called at the time, forzieri) were rectangular boxes that ranged from 30 x 130 cm to 43 x 175.8 cm. In my drawing, a horizontal 61 x 123 cm rectangle surrounds the scene, alluding to the framework of the chests.

Within the rectangle, an uncomfortably young, sweet, and innocent bride strikes a flirtatious yet tasteful pose on the edge of a bed. The bed has been tightly made with fresh, white sheets, and the corner fold is still intact, like her virginity. This suggestive fold in the fabric is inspired by Botticelli’s Venus and Mars. The bride’s left hand gently holds a small bouquet, and a loyal pet dog lies at her feet. The composition is similar to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The bride is blonde, which was a standard of beauty in the art and literature of Renaissance Italy. A delicate, unnaturally elongated neck was another standard, representing vulnerability. Since flowing locks were too seductive on a married woman, her hair is bound in a bun and adorned with pearls to match her earrings. The jewelry and embroidered lingerie reference the bejeweled costumes in quattrocento wedding portraits. Like most of these portraits, she is depicted in three-quarter profile, since an averted gaze signified a woman’s modesty and chastity.

Petrarch wrote about the power of a woman’s eyes, likening them to arrows piercing her lover or having the ability to turn a man into marble. Renaissance artists such as Botticelli incorporated poetic allusions, and I have attempted to do the same. The bride holds two flowers: a blooming branch of privet and a rose. In Poliziano’s Stanze, he describes Simonetta’s face as “sweetly painted with privet and roses”. The bride is idealized, except for one flaw: a mole with two hairs on her left breast. This detail is extracted from Bocaccio’s The Decameron II, 9. In the story, a merchant loses a bet about his wife’s fidelity over an elaborate misunderstanding in which a man recounts the specific placement of his wife’s mole. “Ginerva of Genoa” and the story of Lucretia’s suicide are examples of cassone panel motifs, setting a precedent for all young brides to follow.

Many of our contemporary standards of beauty are derived from the Renaissance. This figure is meant to be a study of the anatomically unrealistic and morally idealized woman. My drawing isn’t a continuation, but rather a reflection on the history of female bodies as visual objects, and the pervasive image of the reclining nude found from museum walls to stock photography. Stock photography is fascinating because it’s an enormous database of imagery created for the masses, an archive of clichés. The ‘look’ is amusingly predictable. The forceful attempt to recreate scenes from everyday life results in a bizarre world that actually strays from reality. Women fall into four categories: the businesswoman, the dieter, the mother, and the sex symbol. Sex symbols often verge on softcore pornography.

Using classical techniques and themes to create artwork based on stock photos reinforces the familiar, recognizable imagery. The most rewarding part of the process is posting images of the work on social media and online forums. Inviting comments and criticism reveals more about the general public’s perception than insight about the drawing itself. The reactions to this drawing are exactly what I expected. A few of the more poignant comments included: “Great nipple. Makes me want sex.”, “SHOW US HER TITS”, “Send close up of foot please”, and many emojis with heart eyes. The reactions confirm that six hundred years later, this Venus figure is still an objectified sexual ideal.