One of the questions we're often asked when we post historical portraits and fashion plates is "Where are the larger ladies?" (See here and here.) Much of the answer to this is perspective, and what qualified as plus-size in the past.
Because of diet, environment, activity, economics, and genetics, Western women living 250 years ago were generally smaller in every way than their modern counterparts. (Consider how many miles Jane Austen's heroines walk in the course of every book!) But in any era, there's no "standard" size for women, and in the past as in the present, there were women of every size and shape, and perfectly happy that way, too.
Which brings us to this lovely portrait of Madame de Saint-Maurice, painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis in 1776. Like many wealthy French ladies, Mme. de Saint-Maurice chose to be painted at an intimate moment in her day, sitting at the looking glass on her dressing-table. While she's having her hair arranged, she's wearing an embroidered dressing-gown of sheer white silk gauze over her stays and a beribboned stomacher. Her hands are gracefully arranged in her lap, and her half-smile, glowing skin, and dark eyes are skillfully captured. She's presented as a beautiful, charming lady, and she is.
Unfortunately, there's no record of Madame's reaction to the painting, or of the husband who most likely commissioned it. Still, she must have been pleased. The artist exhibited this portrait at the Salon of 1777, where, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gallery label notes, "it was admired for its truthfulness and the delicate treatment of the draperies." Successful portrait painters were required to flatter their subjects the same way a modern art director Photoshops. Clearly Madame didn't request it, or require it, either. Beauty comes in all sizes, and vive le différence!
Above: Madame de Saint-Maurice, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1776. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.