Prestige and the Gentleman: Benin's Ideal Man

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1997

Publication Title

Art Journal


Part of a special section on the masculine ideal in art. The ideal of masculinity as represented in five centuries of Benin court art is examined. Benin artists overwhelmingly focus on the male form, and expressions of male perfection are fairly uniform over the five centuries, suggesting a similar longevity of cultural standards. Degrees of male perfection therefore depend on ideal traits—aggression, supernatural power, and, particularly, prestige conferred by titles, wealth, and influence. The absence of depictions of premenopausal women in portraits of important men seems to be explained by the strength of cultural perceptions with regard to female pollution and taboos. Benin art therefore becomes a form of defensive medicine and prayer, ensuring the ideal man's eternal perfection and forever shielding him from contamination.