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October 09, 2006

Queen Nefertiti Was ... Dumpy?!?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Any of you guys dig older women? Especially those you met in an art history class?

A few trifling Greek statues aside (that Venus de something-or-other, etc.), the unquestioned (for me) pre-1400 A.D. Art Babe is Queen Nefertiti of Egypt, 18th Dynasty, circa 1340 B.C.

Here are some views of the famous bust from the workshop of Tuthmosis.

Nefertiti Bust.jpg

Nefertiti Bust 2.jpg

The current consensus is that the bust was created as a reference for stone statues and other, more permanent representations of her. Hence the missing left eyeball.

Nefertiti (the bust) has been living in Berlin for the past 90 years or so, and I finally got the chance to meet her there last month. She was as stunning as I anticipated she would be.

A group of students was surrounding the bust and taking in a lecture when I arrived at her gallery in the Egyptian Museum, so I strayed 30 or so feet away to other displays to wait for them to move along. There I noticed a case containing a statue of her. It was small -- 40 centimeters -- but a full-length, nearly nude figure.

And my beloved Nefertiti looked -- how can I put this delicately? -- ready for a size 16 skirt at a Talbot's sale.

Here are some photos of that statuette.

Nefertiti Statue - front.jpg

Nefertiti Statue 34.jpg

I couldn't find a side-view via Google (perhaps a reader can do better: check the Comments) so you'll have to use some imagination. But my take of the statuette in profile was that she had a pretty large butt and tummy, not to mention the heavy legs you can see in the photos.

This was disappointing.

You see, from the bust alone I extrapolated the rest of her to be basically lean, yet sensually shapely.

But she was what she was, and the artists depicting her added a good deal of individuality, going beyond the stylistic conventions we associate with Egyptian art.

Furthermore, as a book I bought at the museum pointed out, even the bust showed Nefertiti as a mature woman. Note the incipient bags under the eyes. I'd take her for early 30s or a well-preserved 40. The statuette was probably made later because, if you look closely, you can see wrinkling at the corners of her mouth.

My guess is that Nefertiti always had a stunning face and thin upper torso while being at least a little thick in the thighs and ankles.

So she wasn't perfection after all. [Sigh]



P.S. For general info on Nefertiti, click here.

posted by Donald at October 9, 2006


Hey! Queens don't have to look like starving starlets! All the health experts say that women SHOULD have weight in their butts and thighs and bellies! It's a prerequisite for fertility, for one thing.

After all, Queens Victoria, Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II don't look like runway models -- well, unless they're played by Helen Mirren!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 9, 2006 3:02 PM


Posted by: Tat on October 9, 2006 3:33 PM

There's a lot of controversy today over whether the ancient Egyptians were black. While the consensus in the archeological community seems to be that they were mostly brown-skinned, probably a bit lighter than modern Egyptians, it's politically incorrect to depict them as anything except black.

Posted by: Peter on October 9, 2006 3:37 PM

The preference for very slender women is not a universal. In many cultures men prefer women who are hefty by American standards. Even in the US many black men prefer hefty women. (I've verified this by asking both hefty women and black men, and there are songs about it too).

If the Egyptians were black they were like Ethiopians, and Ethiopians are very different in appearance than West Africans.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 9, 2006 4:52 PM

Given the number of daughters she had well duh she has hips. And that is not dumpy or large or fat. That is normal.

Posted by: TW on October 9, 2006 5:33 PM

I'd say the preference for starving starlets is a very recent phenomenon, given that for eons only those who were wealthy could afford to get fat. And it could be that the artist enhanced Nefertiti's buns, thighs and belly because that was considered desirable at the time. It wouldn't be the first time that a court artist made royalty look a little better. As Disraeli said: Flattery works for everyone, with royalty you have to lay it on with a trowel. Plus you get killed for telling the truth.

Posted by: Rachel on October 9, 2006 5:58 PM

I'd hit it hard. I just held a ruler up to the screen, and it appears her waist-to-hip ratio is somewhere between 0.67 and 0.75 -- a nice hourglass shape ("ideal" is 0.7). She's got nice half-moon upper eyelids and a big butt? All the better! Her thighs are thick but not fat (a distinction I'm glad you drew, as it's been eroded elsewhere), but that's more suppleness than too-thin legs.

She has small boobs, but then that's not unusual in the Mediterranean (ditto the hourglass shape and voluptuous rump). And I'm not a boob guy anyway.

Posted by: Agnostic on October 9, 2006 9:28 PM

-- "So she wasn't perfection after all." --

Maybe, according to the standards of her day, she was perfection, or at least the artist made her look that way. I can't comment with any authority about Egypt, specifically, but artistic evidence suggests that before the 20th century "plump" women were considered more beautiful than thin, flat bellied women.

Posted by: Lynn S on October 9, 2006 9:44 PM

Agnostic's "I'd hit it hard. While agreeing with the gist of his commentary, I wonder if "hitting it hard" is now the norm for what can only lightly be termed a compliment.

Ladies, please set your standards down accordingly.

Hmmm. Oh for the days of, say My Fair Lady's, "She completely done me in.
And my heart went on a journey to the moon"

Posted by: DarkoV on October 10, 2006 9:27 AM

Surely you were intentionally putting up an obnoxious posting to arouse controversy, right? So...I serenely refuse to play. But I would remind you that we've all seen your photograph. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: annette on October 10, 2006 10:32 AM

I'm a member of the Egypt Exploration Society Expedition to Tell el-Amarna, the site where these two images of Nefertiti were found. I deal with statuary fragments, including the reconstruction of a shattered pair statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti seated side by side. (See for information on this work.) It also came from the Thutmose workshop.

Some relevant information. The statue was not intended to be nude or nearly nude. It is unfinished, having been found in the same sculptors' workshop where the bust was discoverd. A sheer linen dress would have been painted onto it. A faint, curving black line just above the breasts indicates either the upper edge of the dress or the lower edge of a broad pectoral necklace of faience beads.

As to Nefertiti's figure, yes, this statue most likely depicts her late in her life, mid-30s up (at a time when the average life expectancy was only in the 40s) and having had at least six children.

Beyond that, though, in ancient Egypt fat was considered a sign of fecundity. Donald, you presumably saw some reliefs in that same museum, including one of Akhtenaten and Nefertiti holding three of their daughters. Akhenaten and the children are also depicted with thin upper bodies and plump stomachs and thighs. There has been a huge amount of discussion about whether this is realism or some sort of symbolic convention. I opt for the convention explanation, given the extreme emphasis on fecundity in Akhenaten's new monotheistic religion.

Hope that's of interest!

Posted by: Kristin Thompson on October 10, 2006 11:12 AM

Annette -- Yep, Blowhards try to roil the waters now and then. Boys will be boys, after all.

Kristin -- Thanks for the info. Comments by people who have deep knowledge of a field are always greatly appreciated here. And I'll freely admit that my knowledge of Egyptian art is sketchy in the extreme.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 10, 2006 12:05 PM

Ah c'mon, obviously it was a joke (the phrasing, that is; she really is hot, though... yes, I know girls don't like hearing the word "hot"). Saying "I'd hit it hard" about a revered Queen? Joke!

Posted by: Agnostic on October 10, 2006 12:33 PM

A faint, curving black line just above the breasts indicates either the upper edge of the dress or the lower edge of a broad pectoral necklace of faience beads.

If the line I see was supposed to represent the upper edge of the dress, well, that was a mighty low-cut dress!

Posted by: Peter on October 10, 2006 1:59 PM

Donald --

Take heart -- the "dumpy" look you refer to was probably nothing more than an artistic convention of Nefertiti's time and may not reflect how she actually looked at all.

The reign of Nefertiti and her husband, the pharaoh Akhenaten, coincided with an artistic revolution of sorts, in addition to a religious one (he revolted against the established (polygamous) religious order in Egypt, in favor of worship of a single god, Aten, represented by the sun disc). This artistic revolution began by encouraging an arguably more naturalistic representation, particularly, of human beings, but it later turned into a kind of grotesque parody of itself. Later portraits of Akhenaten, the royal family, and the royal court show everyone with grossly elongated heads, long spindly limbs, fat bellies and thighs, and thin, bony shoulders -- many of them are really freakish. Clearly everyone didn't look like that, any more than everyone in earlier times in Egypt had the heroic proportions we generally see in Egyptian art. There are theories that Akhenaten suffered from some type of genetic or glandular disorder that affected his physiognomy, that this is reflected in his portraits, and that the Egyptian aristocracy followed suit (at least in their portraits) as a kind of homage.

In short, we shouldn't assume that Nefertiti's "portraits" reflect the way she actually looked any more than we should assume that earlier and subsequent queens looked like the slim and graceful ideals of perfection their "portraits" would imply. It's just a reflection of different artistic rules re human representation.

But that bust, my God -- even after 3000 plus years it's still an ideal of female beauty.

Posted by: Stephen on October 10, 2006 2:23 PM

As I said, Donald - you're a provocateur.

Stephen and Kristin Thompson's comments reminded me of a place in 1001 Nights, a description of the bride on her wedding day, i.e. ideal of beauty (of course, much later than Nefertiti times, and in Basra, not Egypt, but the ideals in that part of the world seem to linger) any case, the girl is described thusly:
" her torso is so slim, it makes her run; but her thighs and hips are so thick, they beg her to slow down".

Posted by: Tat on October 10, 2006 4:16 PM

I love this post, what a hoot!

Apparently Queen Victoria of Britain wasn't much of a looker, either.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 10, 2006 6:10 PM

A faint, curving black line just above the breasts indicates either the upper edge of the dress or the lower edge of a broad pectoral necklace of faience beads.

If the line I see was supposed to represent the upper edge of the dress, well, that was a mighty low-cut dress!

Low-cut by modern standard, no doubt. The Egyptians were a bit more casual about partial nudity than we tend to be. Sheer linen clothing didn't conceal everything, and in some periods women could wear a dress covering only one breast, with the cloth gathered into a knot under the other one. Men depicted in tomb scenes as working in the fields or on boats usually wear loin-cloths, but fairly commonly they are simply naked. It was, after all, a hot climate.

I mentioned the possibility that the black line represents the lower edge of a pectoral necklace made of faience beads. Nefertiti is wearing such a necklace in the wonderful painted limestone bust.

I for one don't buy the idea that Akhenaten and other members of his family suffered from some sort of hereditary condition that made their hips and thighs abnormally heavy. The most common attribution these days is to Marfan's syndrome. Problem is, this interpretation depends on linking the unusually prolongated hands, fingers, feet, and toes common in Marfan's to the similarly long digits in Amarna reliefs. Yet the fingers and toes in surviving sculpture in the round depicting the royal family are of perfectly normal proportions. One of the innovations of Amarna art was to depict all the joints in the fingers and toes--and it's a heck of a lot easier to do that if you make them longer. (It's similar to why cartoon characters have three fingrs instead of four--easier to draw.)

More than you wanted to know, perhaps, but the Amarna era is a fascinating period and artistic style.


Posted by: Kristin Thompson on October 10, 2006 10:45 PM

I see nothing dumpy about her body. What I see is the body of a beautiful woman who birthed 7 children!

Posted by: Nasha on October 25, 2006 7:12 PM

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