Author Article by Aileen Ribeiro: On Beauty

Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art is a wide-ranging new art history book, out this month from Yale University Press. Spanning four centuries, Aileen Ribeiro‘s fascinating book illuminates shifting perceptions of female beauty through works of art and the evolution of cosmetics. Here the author talks us through the inspiration for her book, illustrating the various shifting ways in which beauty has been defined throughout the centuries.

Article by Aileen Ribeiro

The inspiration behind my book might be Oscar Wilde’s famous lines: ‘Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances’. It’s a book about ideal beauty and the ways in which women create beauty through the cosmetic arts, it’s about appearances and their meanings; it’s about the different ways in which artists and writers depict beauty as theory, beauty as real.

Much of my work has been about appearances in dress, but this is only one of the narratives in women’s lives; the practical pursuit of beauty in the form of makeup is another, related part of their existence. The word cosmetics is from the Greek for adornment, and painting the face is an adjunct to dressing the body. Appearances, both in art and in life, have always interested me. While on the whole I enjoyed my first degree which was in history, in retrospect there was a sense of dissatisfaction at the emphasis on political history; I wished to find out what people looked like, what they wore – in short, I needed to put a face and dress on history.

Why beauty? There has always been something special about beauty, which is why, paradoxically, such a quicksilver concept has proved so difficult to pin down; it cannot be scientifically examined, and if we are to agree with Kant, there is no intrinsic quality of beauty in any object so ultimately it’s what we think it is.

Plato equated beauty with spiritual and divine love; Aquinas thought it ‘wholeness, harmony, radiance’. But abstract ideas of beauty cannot be thought of without fleshly reality, so the Renaissance saw writers trying to define beauty more specifically as the ideal geometrical proportions of the face, a good bone structure, and a perfect complexion. This is why – with a few backward glimpses – I begin this book in the Renaissance, notably in the courts of northern Italy, where with the growth of a more secular society, a new culture of women on display appeared, aided by the increase in portraiture and the greater availability of cosmetics.

From the Renaissance the story of beauty as theory and reality, and as applied (often literally) to woman’s faces, is traced through the following four centuries; as a French writer commented in 1754: ‘The Face is the chief Seat of Beauty’. By this time, beauty was gradually becoming divorced from Platonic notions of virtue, and linked with aesthetics, where the senses (and the sensual) prevailed over the intellect, the spiritual, and the moral. Increasingly, beauty could be seen as troubling, a temptation to man and with the ability to turn a woman into a decorative and sexual object, even a femme fatale; as the novelist John Galsworthy remarked: ‘Where Beauty was, nothing ever ran quite straight, which, no doubt, was why so many people looked on it as immoral’.

One of the major questions in any discussion of beauty is how far it’s universal or specific to a particular time or culture. Looking at a host of beautiful women over the centuries – the plump vivid beauties of the baroque, the delicate rouged fragility of the rococo ideal, the striking and individual faces of the nineteenth century – it might seem that beauty is a product of a particular time and society. But it can also be argued (and I do, on both sides) that certain facial aspects – regular features, good bone structure, smooth skin, large eyes, and the lower part of the face smaller than the upper – are consistent standards of beauty in every period and race.

Character must also be part of beauty, which must engage the head as well as the heart; an example here might be Aung San Suu Kyi, a beautiful woman who has suffered in the cause of political freedom in her country.

The facial characteristics I mention co-exist with the prevailing fashionable ideal; an example here might be the grave and stately beauty of Lillie Langtry in 1878, when the classical ideal was much admired; Wilde likened her to Helen of Troy.

A beautiful face is heightened by cosmetics; Rogier van der Weyden’s Unknown Woman (c.1460) has her face lightened by white makeup, her eyebrows are plucked and her front hair also to create the high rounded forehead in vogue; would she be as beautiful without this artificial pallor, this exaggerated, ‘naked’ look? For cosmetics can create as well as adorn beauty; Garbo’s unconventional beauty was partly formed by very stylized makeup, and transformed her into a goddess on the screen.

Cosmetics were often referred to as ‘auxiliary’ beauty, and their story is as old as any art. Many women, of course, used makeup to hide a defective complexion or to negate the ravages of time; the irony is that while cosmetics were intended to beautify, they were often harmful. Undoubtedly their use created self-confidence in a largely masculine world, and while they promoted beauty and physical desirability, we shouldn’t assume that cosmetics were intended to make women into passive objects subject to the male gaze. Cosmetics enabled women to enjoy the process of transformation and role-playing, and by the twentieth century, harmless and widely available, they revolutionized the appearance of Everywoman.

At the end of my book I ponder the question (I don’t know the answer): has the awe and wonder which in the past was essential to beauty vanished, to be replaced by beauty purchased at the cosmetics counter of a department store?

Facing Beauty

Facing Beauty

Aileen Ribeiro is Professor Emeritus in the history of art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Her new book Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art is available to order now from Yale University Press. She is also the author of Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, also available from Yale.

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