It may be attributable to my latent prosopagnosia, but because I cannot read too much from facial expressions, I’m quite good at deciphering body language. When I recently came across a picture of a friend I was fascinated by the mere posture, so I decided to do some research on the matter.
Where does this affection for women in that posture came from? I remembered I had seen this posture many times on paintings because obviously painters —like me—have been always impressed by women in that posture. When I actually browsed my archive, though, I found only few examples, but what amazed me most was some regularity.
Any body language dictionary says this posture signals readiness and sometimes even aggression. I cannot agree with aggression, but would rather call it decisiveness or a resolute stance. This—I imagine—would be the perfect welcome posture of a wife for her boozy husband. The gesture has something of authority, self-confidence, and dignity.
This posture obviously is understood in all parts of the world, so we find it in sculptures from India as well as from Pre-Columbian America.
It probably also has something to do with age. In this picture from a German painter that illustrates the seasons of a female, only women in her fecund ages show this posture. Maybe this is the genuine meaning of readiness which also conveys attractiveness and sex-appeal.
However there is more about paintings of women in that posture than just luring men’s attentions. It is remarkable that in Europe those paintings appear not before the 18th century. Italy is an exception which was more advanced that time as are some parts of Germany, in particular those that border to the Netherlands. Still we have to admit that in Tizian’s painting as in Baldung’s before the posture is rather hidden.
A typical painter of that posture was Goya. From Feuchtwanger’s book, we know his affection for strong women. With all his Maja portraits he just indulged in his love affair with the Duchess of Alba one of the most preeminent women of her time.
In Russia this development was a bit delayed, so the earliest painting I could found was a feeble attempt. The painting shows a portrait of a young person with a delicate face and clear complexion typical of a women wearing a uniform typical of a man. The title of the picture Portrait of A Voluntary Officer reminds of Jean d’Arc.
Next it were but aristocrats painted in that posture which seems reasonable as Russian society was still dominated by aristocrats at that time.
Interestingly, though, in Russian art is the early appearance of women members of the working class in that posture.
At the beginning of the 20th century those pictures with women in that posture disappeared. As we witness is Rossetti’s picture painted at the end of the 19th century, he already felt a uncomfortable with that posture. Matisse’s Spaniard with Tambourine is the last one that I found of that kind, with only one single exception.
After World War 2, in East Germany, and for a very short period of time, female representation in such a posture was seen in some paintings. Interestingly, these women appear only in groups that they seem to dominate. Ever since those portraits disappeared, so it is refreshing finding them in personal profiles sometimes.
A German poet once said that artists act like thermometers sensitive to social tensions, and they subconsciously express these tensions in their work. They don’t rationalize social movements but they are able to feel and express these feelings with their specific techniques.