Hans Baldung’s ‘Seven Ages of Woman’

I’ve had this one on my mind for awhile.  This may be one of the earliest images featuring a semi-nude little girl in the history of Western art.  Of course, it presents her in the context of a woman’s aging process.  What immediately catches your eye about these figures are their chests, and this was clearly intentional on Baldung’s part.  Your eye alights on the flat chest of the young girl to the far left, then proceeds to the right along the line of ever-burgeoning mammaries until it reach the sagging breasts of the old woman.  Or maybe it flows in the opposite direction, moving from largest to smallest.  Whatever the case, it is only on the second glance that we take in the diagonal ‘Z’ pattern of all seven figures, including the infant girl on the ground and the barely visible ghost behind the line of corporeal females.  But it is the bosoms more than any other element that leads the eye in this composition, as they represent a clear pattern.

So what can we say of a painting that intentionally channels our attention towards the girl’s and women’s chests?  That it’s erotic?  I don’t believe that was the point here.  It is rather my contention that Baldung intended to draw our attention to the breasts as the most obvious and acute element of the aging female form.  Otherwise why not paint these female bodies entirely nude?  It wasn’t as if he was squeamish about doing so, as one can see from his painting “Allegory of Music,” in which we see an adolescent girl or young woman in full nakedness:


Hans Baldung – Allegory of Music (1527)

We can also say that this painting is allegorical. There clearly are not seven distinct ages of women (nor three, as he depicted in another painting); there are no absolute natural cutoff points between infancy and childhood, childhood and adolescence, adolescence and young womanhood, and so on and so forth. These periods are transitional. But Renaissance thinkers, in the early stages of creating what would become modern science, loved to classify and quantify everything, including humans. Or rather, especially humans.  Thus was born, as well, the modern conception of the child.

Hans Baldung - The Seven Ages of Woman (early 16th century)

Hans Baldung – The Seven Ages of Woman (early 16th century)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *