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November 20, 2010

How to Make a Fat Man Look Even Fatter

(And Like a Fool As Well)

A vertical format can make a subject look more slender and tall than it actually is.

Philip II of Spain - 1551
Artist: Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio (c. 1488/1490-1576), better known as Titian
From Wikimedia, this picture is in the public domain

But a vertical format can also accentuate fatness.

Porträt eines dicken Herrn, des sogen - 17th century
("eines dicken Herrn" seems to translate to "a fat lord")
("des sogen" seems to translate to "so-called")
Artist: Bernardo Strozzi (c. 1581-1644), Italian Baroque painter
From Wikimedia, this picture is in the public domain

This man, the artist seems to be saying, is not just fat - he's too fat (and not just fat but clueless - Strozzi did not like this guy).

A very large person can be made to look comfortable and quite acceptable and even admirable in his or her world -- the "world" of the painting. But Strozzi has made this large man look like he doesn't fit at all into the scene he has painted him into (even though the subject looks quite conceited, apparently completely unaware of how ridiculous he appears).

Other paintings by Strozzi show that those people he cared to flatter or whom he had something else to say about were not painted in the same way at all. For example:

David with the Head of Goliath - c. 1636
Artist: Bernardo Strozzi
From Wikimedia, this picture is in the public domain

David (as well as Goliath's head) blends in with the background (and foreground - let us just say with the "ground"), whereas the "fat lord" stands out as a dark figure against a very light background so that we can very clearly see his entire bulging contour. As we can see from the painting of David and Goliath, Strozzi did not paint all subjects alike - How he painted them had to do with what he wanted to get across about the subject, so obviously the artist made the "fat lord" look as fat as possible quite intentionally.

How the artist made the fat lord look bigger:

- First of all, he chose the shape of the overall picture: a narrow vertical rectangle. A narrow vertical format can help to lengthen and slenderize a bulky vertical subject but other factors have to be manipulated as well or the same vertical rectangle can make the subject look even bulkier than it is - because of the contrast between tall/slim and bulky/wide. This is especially true if the sides come quite close to the subject, indicating that it barely fits or even that it's expanding toward the edges of the composition. This is the case here.

- And of course the rectangular shape (rather than an oval or round shape) of the perimeter of the picture -- along with the straight vertical columns -- strongly suggests the "Cartesian grid" understructure of the painting, making it impossible for us not to notice the bulging shape of the man as contrasted with the straight vertical and horizontal lines of the grid.

- As mentioned above, there is the contrast of the very dark subject against the very light "ground," making his large and bulging profile extremely obvious, and in fact more immediately noticeable than anything else in the picture.

- The dark shadow the man's stomach casts on the column blends in with the adjacent stomach to make it seem even larger than it is. "Where the overlapping units together form a particularly simple shape, they tend to be seen as one and the same thing." (Rudolf Arnheim in Art and Visual Perception, page 121)

- The man is, for some reason, pulling up his hem. Not only does this show us that he has huge legs, but it also plumps up the fabric and adds more bulk to the profile on the side of the picture opposite the stomach.

- The slenderness of the sword, which reaches down to his feet, contrasts with the bulk of the body, making the body look all the larger. The sword is so narrow that it looks like it might snap under the weight.

- The sword also accentuates the protrusion of the stomach since it is directly in line with the stomach's profile beginning at its outermost extension and acts as an arrow that points out the outer edge of the frontal bulk. (Another function of the sword is to "pin down" the lord's balloon-shaped stomach, as it seems to be rising.)

- The "heavily planted" feet seem to be pushed downward by a great weight.

- The artist takes advantage of the fact that we perceive objects that are higher in the picture as being heavier than they would look in a lower position "[I]n a painting the higher an object is in pictorial space, the heavier it looks." (Rudolf Arnheim in The Power of the Center, page 24) Thus the stomach looks particularly heavy.

- The vertical shape (a column) that is closest to the man's body and to the front plane of the picture not only contrasts with the rotund shape of the man's body, making it stand out all the more, it (the column) also helps to "lift" the stomach up, making it seem all the more prominent (and even "active!") - as if it were being shown off. ("Look at my magnificent stomach!")

The reason the column appears to lift up the stomach is that it (the column) is seen to be rising like a rocket just starting to lift off the ground - and in doing so "pulling" the nearby stomach upwards with it. The reason the column appears to be rising is that although there is a very definite base attached to its bottom, essentially "blocking" any perceived downward thrust, in contrast there is no change in shape (like a bulge) or anything else (such as a capital at the top) that appears to slow down the "ascent" of the column at the top the picture, and so the column appears to continue rising upward and out of the scene. -- When something immediately adjacent to something else looks like it is reaching upward, as this column is, there is a tendency to perceive that almost-attached "something else" as being lifted along with it. (See The Power of the Center, by Rudolf Arnheim, pp. 21-23)

- The fat lord's maximum girth is above the horizontal center of the picture, attracting our attention to it more strongly than would be the case if it were lower in the picture where heavier objects, pulled down as they are in real life by gravity, are usually found.

- The man's hands seem to cradle a large globular mass (his stomach), thereby emphasizing its size and shape. And speaking of the cradling hands, notice the difference in their apparent size, with hand in the foreground looking much larger than the one in the background - yes, there is probably more of the hand that we can't see from that position but what is important is what we can see; also the hand in the background is darker by far than the very prominent and brightly lit larger foreground hand...This difference in hand size and brightness emphasizes the distance between the one and the other.

Hold cursor over pictures to read directions
Click on above pictures to see left divided into upper and lower halves, right divided into quarters

- The large pear-shaped face (which we can see clearly as it is lit from the side and is of a light color modeled by dark shadows) is similar to the shape of the main bulk of the man's body. The light/dark modeling makes the face and neck area look 3-dimensionally bulgy, suggesting that the adjacent similar (though much larger) shape is also 3-dimensionally bulgy.

- The fat lord's feet (it looks like only one foot is shown, but we assume the other is there beside it!) are shown sideways and they seem very long - Whether or not it's just that he has very long shoes, or whether part of what we see is the "flag" or whatever it is lying on the floor doesn't make any difference. It is the dark shape we see and where the foot ends and the shoe ends or where the material behind his foot ends makes no difference as it is all one dark mass that we see as "the feet." Even if we saw only a bare foot and knew where it ended, this sideways view of it is the largest image we could have of it; obviously the artist gave us this profile view of the feet to make them seem very large and virtually planted to the floor in order to emphasize the man's great weight pushing downward ... Look at that heavy-looking, downward aimed wedge-shaped calf directing all the weight of the body above into the shoe; the leg seems not to end at the bottom of the shoe, but, rather, the shoe that we see looks like it opens up at the bottom so that the wedge extends into a deep pit.

- Another way he has been made to look large and heavy is by seemingly rubbing up against the column, as if there wasn't room for him to stand without bumping into something.

How the artist made this man look foolish:

It has been implied by the artist that the man, who looks very conceited, and proud of his figure, is delusional and foolish. Here are some of the ways the artist shows that the man is not what he thinks he is:

- His facial expression shows that haughty and satisfied look just mentioned, in spite of the ludicrous figure he presents.

- He is holding a very odd pose in a very odd place, just barely fitting on that pedestal and facing in the direction of the column. Obviously there's nowhere to go in that direction; he has run into a blockade.

- Note the viewpoint, from a little below. The artist has put this man quite truly on a pedestal and has us (ironically) looking "up" to him. Actually it appears as if the fat man had put himself on that pedestal, having had to step up there in order to take that pose.

- The man is (awkwardly) turned to show his profile, as if showing off his huge stomach quite proudly. (I don't think the subject knew anything about this picture, do you?)

- Perhaps what looks like a crumpled flag under his feet and just behind his lower legs might be there to show that he is capable of crushing things easily. Or it could be the remains of a flimsy chair he had been sitting on. With the other "clues" we've been given, we tend to think that the reason that "crumpled fabric" is there probably has to do with this man's weight and/or size.

- Why is the man pulling up his hem and showing his huge leg?

     The artist must have really enjoyed creating this picture (and probably his other pictures as well).  He knew what he wanted to "say" about this man (i.e., that this delusional fat man is a pompous fool), and in order to get that across he had to do a lot of thinking (or "problem solving") to figure out how to accomplish this goal.  Sounds like fun to me.

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