Throughout art history, the three graces are repeatedly represented by great artists. From Greek mythology to contemporary art, these three figures represent the ideals of female beauty corresponding to different times and artists.
In this article from Citaliarestauro we will take a journey through the history of art following these three nice characters: the 3 graces.
Cover image: Botticelli, the 3 graces, detail , Galeri degli Uffizi.
By: Rute Ferreira
Who were the three graces in Greek mythology?
Our story begins with Greek mythology and three women who epitomized the ideal of female beauty for various artists over the centuries: The Three Graces.
Everyone knows that Aphrodite (to Romans known as Venus) is the goddess of love and beauty. In addition to being worshiped in temples of the ancient world, the irresistible goddess was also represented by artists of all times.
But there were also other goddesses of love, known as Caritas or Graces. They were three girls that, according to the poet Hesiod, were daughters of Zeus and Eurynome, a sea nymph with whom the god of Olympus had a brief love affair.
The Three Graces were called Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalya, and they were always together. Besides love and beauty, the girls were also associated with nature, creativity, fertility, charm, splendor, and joy, in other words, graces.
In some myths they appear on top of Olympus, singing and dancing with the Muses and Apollo; in others they are always in the company of Aphrodite.
By the way, when Aphrodite was born – from the foam of the sea – it was the Three Graces who received and cared for her. When Aphrodite wanted to seduce Anchises, the only mortal with whom she had a child, again the Three Graces dressed her and perfumed her to the date. And even when the goddess was caught cheating Hephaestus with Ares, and seen by all the gods, once again the Graces were there, to dress her and console her.
Even though in myths the Three Graces have always appeared as the assistant of the goddess, in art they have become protagonists of countless works, from antiquity to the present day. And with that, they served to represent not only the mythological characters, but also the ideal of female beauty of each period and for each artist.
The earliest representations of the Three Graces appeared in mosaics and sculptures in ancient temples.
The three graces in the Renaissance
It was especially during the Renaissance that the goddesses, as well as other mythological figures, became a recurring theme in painting.
Representing women as mythological characters was a way of representing the naked female body, otherwise, it would be too shocking.
In Rafael’s painting, clearly based on ancient sculptures, there is an emphasis on the pallor and the indifferent gaze of the girls. Although their bodies are mature, the sexual organs are subtly displayed and the breasts are not exposed.
Lucas Cranach, like Rafael, portrayed the Three Graces completely naked, but in his work the girls do not hold symbolic attributes, like the apple or flowers. Instead, they have props (a hat and necklaces). Only one of the girls relies on her sister, unlike other paintings in which they are always hand in hand.
The Graces of Raphael and Cranach have something in common: their bodies resemble teenage bodies. The ideal of beauty seems to reside precisely in the youth of the models.
The three graces by Peter Paul Rubens and Alessandro Varotari
A little different from Rafael’s depiction is that of the painter Rubens, who opted for more mature Graces, with not so firm bodies, and more opulent forms. Also, notice how their gazes intersect, perhaps suggesting a little more intimacy.
The composition, however, is practically the same. Two of the girls are seen frontally, while the other is represented from the rear.
Alessandro Varotari (Il Padovanino) alters this composition, placing two of the girls face front, while the third one turns her back on the observer.
Though naked, girls wear veils, an element that is repeated in other Three Graces paintings.
In the 19th century
About two centuries later, when mythological themes began to be reviewed the three graces paintings continued to be created.
The iconography, however, changed as it no longer showed realistic or anatomically perfect bodies, like in Rafael’s painting, neither the atmosphere was idyllic nor romantic, like in Varotari’s.
Koloman Moser, for example, pointed out in his Three Graces only the side of the body of each, the skins of ochra tone and red veins. The composition, which is symbolist, does not present a garden or field as it was before.
In Moser’s painting, it was not only the structure of the composition that changed, but also the technique and, above all, the ideal of feminine beauty.
And speaking of changes in representation, Sir Lawrence Tadema creates his version of Three Graces painting making use of a complex set of symbols.
In addition to representing the three figures in the center, he showed the other graces in the corners of the work (in the top left, for example, Law, Order, and Authority). As in the previous paintings, the women are very close, but Tadema only portrays their faces.
The three graces by Robert Delaunay
At the beginning of the 20th century, when the European avant-garde movements were at their peak, the painter Robert Delaunay placed The Three Graces in the Villa of Paris.
Although Delaunay fragments the characters, it is still possible to see clearly that he follows the same compositional structure as Raphael.
The Three Graces are a beautiful inspiration from much of what it is to be a woman.
Although the characters are the same, the representations over time have changed a lot. Sometimes thin and with children’s bodies, sometimes more mature, naked or dressed, long or short hair… These paintings prove that the idea of beauty is dynamic and changes all the time.
And that is where the paradox lies: the ideal of feminine beauty is not ONE ideal. Every woman has a particularity that makes her more beautiful. And that is the real Grace of being a woman.
About Rute Ferreira: I am an art teacher with a background in theater, art history and museology. I’m also specialized in Distance Education and I work in basic education. I write regularly on the Citaliarestauro.com blog and the Dailyartmagazine.com. I firmly believe that the history of art is the true history of humanity.
Some posts by Rute Ferreira at Citaliarestauro: