Painting Faces: The Art of Flattery
May 18, 2019 - September 8, 2019
People have been painting faces since the very earliest times, and whether creating portraits or decorating human skin, they have used exactly the same materials – from kohl in ancient Egypt to white lead and carmine in eighteenth-century Europe.
Early artists’ manuals contain recipes for cosmetics as well as for pastels and paint, while instructions on how to enhance the face mimic those for making portraits. Even today we talk about “make-up artists” and eye-shadow “palettes”, inventing ever more extreme forms of “self-fashioning”, from apps for flawless Selfies to plastic surgery.
Yet cosmetics have always been seen as morally dubious – a seductive mask associated with actresses and courtesans. “Painted ladies” (and gentlemen) could never quite be trusted, and artists shared the same blame for flattery and deceit, exploiting bright colour to catch the public eye. Focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this exhibition explores the relationship between cosmetics and portraiture, bringing together moralizing Vanity prints and Japanese beauties. Enter a world of mirrors and make-up to discover how the urge to make new, improved versions of ourselves extends across time and culture.