I grew up in New York City at a time when all the female role models such as Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell were “zaftig” (Yiddish for plump or juicy). Every young woman I knew aspired to a 36”26” 36” figure and made sure to stuff handkerchiefs in places where Mother Nature had failed to meet that goal. In my urban neighborhood, only a few decades away from immigrant poverty, a well-built woman signified good health and an ample food supply. Catcalls of approval followed her wherever she went, annoying but preferable to my situation. I was an unfashionable 112 pounds through most of my teens and twenties and a source of worry to relatives who doubted I would ever find a husband let alone produce children.
But what does this have to do with ART? Actually, quite a lot. Artists love hefty models. You can almost hear the disappointment when a slender model walks into a life drawing class and drops her clothes. “There’s nothing to paint here!” is the unspoken wail. However, let a 200-pounder come through the door and the joy in the room is almost palpable. “Now this is going to be fun!” It was okay for Medieval Madonnas in clothes-hangar robes to be skinny but once you got to real naked ladies during the Renaissance, they had to be well-endowed. “Venuses” from a migratory period that pre-dated writing or civilization of any kind celebrated amplitude. Anthropologists claim they were “fertility figures,” but I suspect they really celebrated a reliable food supply. Fat meant fed. Among the greatest painters of pulchritude were the 17th Century Dutch who were celebrating an era of plenty after a prior period of famine and extreme cold. A nude by Rembrandt or Rubens is as much a tribute to Dutch prosperity as anything else.
Today’s sex symbols would be considered grotesque in any era but our own. Women are encouraged to distort their bodies surgically. I once spotted one poor naked thing in a locker room who looked as if someone had pasted two half cantaloupes onto her anorexic body. Whose idea of feminine beauty is this? On the other hand, coming out of Curley’s Diner the other day, I encountered an absolutely magnificent woman, children in tow, wearing an ankle-length red silk dress with tropical flowers on it. Maximum body; minimum underwear. I made sure to file her in my mental “to show up in a painting someday” file.
Since most of my artwork comes from my subconscious, you’ll find an awful lot of pleasingly plump women there. There are probably two reasons for this, 1) most of my subject matter comes from the people I encounter in everyday life. They don’t mind being well endowed; they’re just happy to be well fed. The other reason is probably “wish fulfillment.” These babes have what I wanted all those years ago. I’m apparently still acting out my desire to attract approval from the guys at the candy store.