Today, the possibilities for cosmetic improvement seem infinite: from eyebrow tattooing and lip fillers, to make-up that ‘contours’, or ‘sculpts’, the face. Many online tutorials show how to make yourself up as famous beauties of the past, such as Cleopatra and Marie-Antoinette. Or if you prefer a more virtual form of flattery, how about using an app or ‘augmented reality’ filter to enhance your selfies?
People have been perfecting their faces since the very earliest times, and, whether painting portraits or decorating human skin, they have used exactly the same materials: from kohl in ancient Egypt to white lead and carmine in 18th-century Europe. A touring Ashmolean exhibition, Painting Faces: The Art of Flattery, explores this need for ‘self-fashioning’. For example, an Egyptian make-up palette, used for grinding green eye make-up, is displayed alongside a present-day eyeshadow set that is decorated with the phrase ‘Believe in your Selfie'. The ancient Egyptians used malachite and kohl as make-up and considered these materials to have protective powers.
In the early 15th century Cennino Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook included a section on painting real faces. He described make-up using pigments mixed with egg yolk and oil or varnish, and warned against the ‘perils of indulgence’ in cosmetics. William Salmon’s Polygraphice (1672) contained recipes for face paint, recommending artists use them to correct ‘deformities’ on the face or on canvas. This close connection between painting faces and painting portraits extends to Japan where they also focused on achieving a white, mask-like skin, with red lips and cheeks, and black-painted eyebrows.
The 18th-century equal of the make-up artist was the portrait painter, or ‘face-painter’, whose job it was to flatter the sitter. George Romney’s subjects hoped to emerge from the painter’s hands ‘smooth, rosy, round, smiling.' Apothecaries supplied women and artists with carmine, white lead, gamboge (yellow) and Prussian blue. Similar brushes were sold for applying the pigments, and shells were used for mixing – as they had been in Egyptian times.