Women in Art: Jenny Saville

My last post on weight issues in the art world made me want to further investigate specific artists. In this case, Jenny Saville. She’s an incredible artist who utilizes mark making and sophisticated application of paint to create figure paintings of large women, working with how women are viewed by men, by themselves, and how we as a society perceive gender (among many other interesting topics).

For my Women/Gender/Art class we wrote research papers on women artists throughout history and how their work related to gender, or how their gender caused historians and critics to treat them differently from male contemporaries of their time. I really wanted to compare and contrast the depiction of the female nude by Jenny Saville and Will Cotton, but alas, they were rejected as too recent… Instead I went with Harriet Hosmer and Hiram Powers, which was interesting as well, but my research paper writing heart truly belongs to my original topic!

Saville's "Propped" and Cotton's "Cotton Candy Clouds". Their depictions of the female nude are so vastly different. It's enough to make me actually want to write a research paper.

But enough of those dreams, that paper can wait for another day!

Today I want to focus on Saville.

More after the jump!


This piece depicts Saville’s face on top of a body distorted through extreme foreshortening as she lifts her breasts in order to view herself. The contour lines on the subjects body are meant to be the lines plastic surgeons trace onto patient’s bodies for liposuction. The focus here is on how plastic surgery is used to make women more conventionally attractive according to societal ideals. Saville is referencing society’s construction of perfection. She wants to bring our attention to how women are molded to be pleasing to the male gaze. In this piece Saville says that women should be able to follow their own perception of beauty, rather than the ideal projected upon them.

A great quote by Saville:

“There is a thing about Beauty. Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is. I don’t think there is anything wrong with beauty. It’s just what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be a beauty in individualism. If there is a wart or a scar, this can be beautiful, in a sense, when you paint it. It’s part of your identity, Individual things are seeping out, leaking out.”

People have asked me if I think that all women are beautiful. It’s a loaded question. If I said yes, they would assume I was lying, that it was simply a typical feminist attempt to be inclusive. If I say no, then I’m buying into cultural norms of beauty. I personally don’t think that either of these extremes are fair. What Saville says here is perfect. What women find beautiful can be different from male fantasy. Those little “imperfections” can be attractive, they’re what make you unique.

I know that sounds a little bit cheesy, like you’d find it on a poster in a junior high school. But sometimes those posters are actually true (That’s why I always shoot for the moon! That way if I miss at least I’ll land among the stars!), it’s the things that make you different that make you beautiful.

"Interfacing". Saville had a wart on her face when she created this painting. She felt that when people looked at her face it was all they would see, overshadowing the rest of her. But she makes these little things beautiful through their emotional charge.

A few more of Saville’s pieces depicting women’s bodies:

Saville also did a fair share of exploring the depiction of gender other than male or female. She created images of those with non-fixed or “floating” genders.

A number of the people Saville paints achieve their floating gendered bodies through surgery. Saville finds this intriguing, as though she’s creating a more modern architecture of the human body.


Saville’s work rewrote the way in which we view figural painting. Rather than something limited and archaic she brought us conceptual work with realistic technique. She furthers feminist ideas and created work freed from the male gaze, although we see nude women, we see their emotions, we see inner turmoil, not just conventionally attractive women posing passively.

Saville has all of the makings of an artist who will be remembered throughout history. Stylistically innovative, masterful in their technique, and recognized by peers and the art community, Saville is a major player and influence in the art world. And I for one think that she is a role model. A strong, successful woman artist with a strong, successful message. Women as a subject are not always for men. Women have a place in art as artist, subject, and audience.

Here are a few sites I found Saville’s paintings and biography info from. They’re interesting reads!

Saatchi Gallery

Great info on Saville

Wonderful article talking about Saville’s work and themes in her work

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