Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Testa, Judith Anne, 1943-

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

School of Art


Life cycle; Human; in art; Feminism and art; Women in art; Femininity in art; Youth in art; Ugliness in art


The theme of the cycle of life divides the aging of an individual into easily recognizable stages. Often appearing in the visual arts, this theme helps to relieve anxiety through organization and an understanding about what can be expected during the aging process. The roots of the cycles of life can be traced to ancient writings of Greco-Roman philosophers, although in this context this theme is more appropriately labeled the ?ages of man? because these ancient thinkers used a masculine ideal as a basis of all comparisons. Woman was considered an aberration of the male norm and used only in a comparative context in support of masculine superiority. These misogynistic roots became the framework upon which modem culture continues to base its perceptions about aging. This thesis analyzes how differently Western culture has perceived aging in men and women. Youth is the only stage of a woman?s life that has been consistently celebrated by artists. The term ?Halo Effect?-- an unrealistic paradigm of femininity often illustrated by images of the Virgin Mary? was used to show the connection between youth, beauty, and goodness in young women. Eventually, driven by fears of impotence induced by changing traditional roles, male artists began to link images of the femme fatale, vampire, and sphinx to young women. Beautiful women fell from their pedestals and became something to fear. Artists have often associated ugliness with old age and negative or evil qualities. In feminine cycles of life, old age has been routinely portrayed as a time of hopelessness, embarrassment, and especially envy for youth. In addition, old women have been associated with evil images in the form of witches. Such unfavorable depictions have encouraged suspicion of old women and the desire to avoid or ignore this stage of life altogether. Because the visual arts reflect societal perceptions, art seems a natural place to initiate change and transform stereotypes. By rediscovering, creating, and celebrating positive images of aging women, especially in paintings that incorporate the cycles of life motif, stereotypes may begin to soften. This would allow women the luxury of enjoying their ?golden? years.


Includes bibliographical references (pages [101]-105)


viii, 154 pages




Northern Illinois University

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