The White Story

Since ancient times, cosmetics have played a significant role in the art of self-fashioning, fulfilling societies’ constructed notions of beauty and social status. We investigate the link between class and cosmetics.


Since ancient times, cosmetics have been used in the art of self-fashioning, to modify, enhance and conceal. Attitudes towards pale complexions and whitening of the skin have oscillated between the positive and the negative. Consider the terminology commonly used to describe pale skin: from corpse-like to lily white. A pale complexion can symbolise youth and innocence, but it is also associated with sin and death, not to mention leprosy. Indeed, the long-standing moral associations are complex and ambiguous and lie at the heart of societies’ constructed notions of — particularly female — appearance.

One image in particular dominates the discourse on cosmetic whitening. Madame X, painted in 1883-84 by the American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1884 as Portrait de Mme***, received widespread criticism. Sargent, born in Italy to American parents and trained in Paris, was the leading society portrait painter of his day and he intended this early work to cement his reputation. Instead, it drew such criticism that he fell out of favour in Paris and decamped to London. What was all the fuss about? The painting or its subject?

Despite the painting’s title, “Madame X” was by no means anonymous. Sargent’s sitter was the well-known socialite, Virginie Gautreau, an expatriate American of French and Italian descent, whom he had sought out, proclaiming his “great desire” to paint an “homage to her beauty”.1 Gautreau’s provocative pose contributed to the critics’ outrage. She stands erect, her features in sharp profile and body presented for the delectation of the viewer, as she turns her face away. Her body is taut and seductively exposed, her stylish, black dress cut daringly low. Like the female subject of Manet’s Olympia (1863), another painting that shocked Parisian audiences, Gautreau challenges us with her frank effrontery2; she does not conform to the stereotype of a passive, submissive woman. Sargent presents Gautreau as a woman empowered by her own sexuality, and brimming with confidence.

Egyptians primarily used cosmetics to shield their faces from the sun, but make-up also served a decorative function.

Criticism centred on her alabaster skin, with one critic commenting, “There is an almost wilful perversion of the artist’s knowledge of flesh-painting. A full-length figure, slim and even angular in her proportions, and with head in profile, she is clad (very partially so) in a dress of black velvet fitting very close to the body. The flesh-painting […] has far too much blue in it, and […] more resembles the flesh of a dead than a living body.”3 Her exposed skin, both sexually provocative and corpse-like, evidently disconcerted contemporary viewers. To achieve this look, Gautreau laboriously applied a chalky lavender powder to her skin every night, which masked her natural skin tone.4 Sargent wrote to his friend, the writer, Vernon Lee, “Do you object to people who are fardées [‘made up’] to the extent of being uniform lavender or blotting paper colour all over? If so you would not care for my sitter. But she has the most beautiful lines and if the lavender or chlorate-of-potash-lozenge be pretty in itself I shall be more than pleased.”5 For Sargent, aesthetics were paramount; clearly he did not anticipate the public’s antipathy to his model and rejection of the portrait.

The dark background and dress set off Gautreau’s whitened skin, as do her brightly rouged lips, plucked and possibly darkened eyebrow and reddened ear. Gautreau’s make-up was designed to show her at her best under artificial light, as she made her way from one social function to another, evening after evening, and as such this was her public face. It was a kind of performative mask that created a sense of mystery and intangibility, and it unsettled people. One viewer asked, “Is it a woman or a chimera?”6 At the time, cosmetics were widely used, and upper class women shielded themselves from the sun to retain pale complexions, indicative of their social status. Delicate white skin had for many hundreds of years been associated with women of high social status and was a symbol of good breeding; only members of the working class who laboured outdoors acquired dark complexions. Nevertheless, Gautreau’s white make-up was so extreme that to many people it appeared crude.

Ovid encouraged women to improve their appearance in a quest for perfection. But this comes with a striking warning that in order to attract rather than repulse a lover, women must conceal such activities and take care that the “paint” is applied artfully.

In nineteenth-century Paris, make-up like Gautreau’s was associated with the heavy face paint applied by actors, or cosmetics used by Japanese geisha. As Japanese prints flooded the European market, a fascination with Japanese style and culture gained sway. Face whitening was popular in Japan and the use of cosmetics was an ancient practice. From the seventh century onwards white lead, imported from China, was used by women following the ancient proverb, “iro no shiroi wa shichinan kakusu” (“white skin covers the seven flaws”). In the Heian period (794-1185), when the imperial court was at its height, elite women applied a mixture of rice powder and white clay as face powder (oshiroi) to the face and neck.7 The great classic of Japanese literature, The Tale of Genji, written in the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, a noblewoman of the Heian court, includes descriptions of female beauty. The book tells the story of Prince Genji, who loses his royal position and becomes an imperial officer. Each instalment of the narrative tells of his life among the aristocracy and various relationships with women. In Spring Shoots II (chapter 35), Murasaki (Genji’s future beloved wife) is introduced with skin “so exquisitely white as to seem almost transparent and she made an utterly enchanting sight”. As early as this, white skin was an attribute of beauty. During the Edo period (1603-1868), face whitening became a formal part of the beauty regime of the new geisha woman, and in 1813, a popular compendium called Miyako Fuzoku Kewai Den (A Handbook of Cosmetics in the Capital) was published, and fashionable women in the city followed its beauty tips, including methods for making the skin “beautifully white”. Recently, the book inspired an entire line of cosmetics — Tatcha — that was launched in 2009.

Face whitening can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where a face powder of chalk and white lead was applied. Earlier cultures used whitening substances on their faces, but the ancient Egyptians were particularly influential and their practices may be seen as the root of cosmetics. Egyptians primarily used cosmetics to shield their faces from the sun, but make-up also served a decorative function, along with elaborate ornamental hairstyles.8 These practices were passed down to the Greeks and Romans, via the Cretans, and were also adopted by the Chinese. In Ancient Greece, although the use of cosmetics was limited, hetairai (sophisticated courtesans) whitened their skin and applied rouge (made from the Syrian root, puperissium). The Romans developed a more extensive use of cosmetics and corresponding set of ideas around their use. Roman women, and occasionally men, whitened their faces with chalk powder, stained their cheeks with vermilion (a brilliant red, first made from the mineral cinnabar and ever since used as a pigment in painting) and bathed their skin in milk. In these ancient cultures, the link between cosmetics and class was first established. Cosmetics were luxury items that only the privileged could afford, the same people who held power and were patrons of culture. As their notions about paleness developed, the Romans linked a fair complexion with beauty and love. In his The Art of Love, written in the year 2 AD, the poet Ovid declared: “every lover should be pale […] it is the hue appropriate to Love.”9 This advice was directed at men, but Ovid was more thorough in explaining how women should make themselves beautiful:

“With wax you know how to whiten your skin, and with carmine to give yourself the rosy hue which Nature has denied you […] But on no account let your lover find you with a lot of ‘aids to beauty’ boxes about you. The art that adorns you should be unsuspected. Who but would feel a sensation of disgust if the paint on your face were so thick that it oozed down on to your breasts? […] How many things revolt us in the process, which delight us in the achievement […] That marble, once an unhewn block, is now a masterpiece—Venus, naked, wringing the water from her dripping hair […] Why should I know what it is that makes your skin so white? Keep your door shut, and don’t let me see the work before it’s finished.”10

Lead is extremely poisonous, but for centuries, in the name of fashion, women willingly applied a substance that attacked their skin — leaving it horribly scarred — caused hair loss and, in some cases, even led to death.

Ovid encouraged women to improve their appearance in a quest for perfection. But this comes with a striking warning that in order to attract rather than repulse a lover, women must conceal such activities and take care that the “paint” is applied artfully.

In the Middle Ages, pale skin was perceived as an essential attribute of feminine beauty. The concept of “courtly love” that emerged in the twelfth century was celebrated in chivalric romances — fantastic stories of adventure, heroism, knights and maidens — that were enormously popular with aristocratic audiences. It was in this literature, rich in flower symbolism, that the “rose and lily” complexion was conceived as an ideal for women. Ladies were supposed to possess a demure beauty, and the lily (symbol of purity, chastity and motherhood) and rose (symbol of love and martyrdom), both associated with the Virgin Mary, were apt symbols. The “rose and lily” ideal has been synonymous with female beauty ever since.

Numerous recipes for “whitening the face” were recorded in a popular compilation of medical texts, dating from the mid-thirteenth century, which was based on earlier works composed in Salerno in southern Italy, a renowned centre of learning. Ingredients included lead white, egg white, lilies, white wax, fats and oils, and spices such as nutmeg and mustard.11 Images of women in illuminated manuscripts, notably the fair and slender Bathsheba, who caught the eye of the biblical king David as she was bathing, encapsulate ideals of feminine beauty that pertained for centuries.

Proportions of the ideal female body are culturally specific and change over time, but if we compare the countless paintings of the Virgin, Venus and Eve, created in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we see that these feminine archetypes generally have pale complexions. While whitened skin symbolised youth, beauty, purity and virginity, in Eve’s case, it also was seen as a catalyst for temptation and sin. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s slender Eve in his 1526 oil painting Adam and Eve is a stunning example of pale-skinned femininity. With her porcelain skin, finely arched eyebrows, blond tendrils and high forehead, Eve offers a stark contrast to the more naturalistic figure of Adam, who she tempts with the apple.

Lead is extremely poisonous, but for centuries, in the name of fashion, women willingly applied a substance that attacked their skin — leaving it horribly scarred — caused hair loss and, in some cases, even led to death.

The Renaissance heralded advancements in cosmetics. Sixteenth-century Venice was a great centre of trade, including textiles and pigments. Venetian Ceruse, also known as Spirits of Saturn, a mixture of white lead and vinegar, became the skin whitener of choice. White lead, also the white pigment used by artists, gave excellent coverage and was used cosmetically until the nineteenth century. Lead is extremely poisonous, but for centuries, in the name of fashion, women willingly applied a substance that attacked their skin — leaving it horribly scarred — caused hair loss and, in some cases, even led to death.

The fashion for face whitening, endorsed by the Queen, was taken to extremes in Elizabethan England. Elizabeth was crowned in 1559, at the age of 25 and many portraits, incorporating political messages and helping to construct her self-image, were painted throughout her reign. The first painting, Elizabeth’s coronation portrait, shows the young Queen with a perfectly oval whitened face. She appears young and virginal, the committed bride of England. Naturally pale with red hair, she enhanced these features with ceruse, drawing attention to her resemblance to her father, Henry VIII, and distancing herself from her mother, Anne Boleyn, and catholic sister, Mary I, who she succeeded. In the coronation painting, Elizabeth is transformed into a magnificent idol. The shape of her body is distorted by her dress and the ermine-lined cloak makes her larger and broader than she actually was. The cosmetic mask presents an inscrutable face to the world, strong and impenetrable while still understood as feminine. In The Ermine Portrait (1585), an ermine is painted sitting on the Virgin Queen’s arm. This small creature, whose white winter coat was used to line garments, appears as a symbolic device. It was said that the ermine would rather die than dirty its fur, which made it a perfect emblem of chastity. Highborn women of the time emulated Elizabeth’s style, including her extreme whitening. Known as “enamelling”, it complemented contemporary fashions, which placed a premium on jewels and other adornments. Women used ceruse, but to this they added egg white, which set like a glaze.12 Aside from concealing signs of ageing, ceruse covered smallpox scars and other blemishes, some caused by the cosmetics themselves, which were highly toxic. The make-up was extended down to cover the neck and bosom. Women then drew on fake blue veins across their chests in an attempt to look somewhat natural. Mercury-based vermilion, another poisonous and damaging pigment, was then used to redden the cheeks.

Elizabethan poets reveal the extent to which ideals of female beauty were tied to the shape of the face and the complexion. “The face should be round and ruddy,” wrote John Marston, “the forehead smooth, high and white […] The cheeks should show the rose and lily in combat and be dimpled like the chin, the neck, snow-white and round like an ivory pillar holding the head high […] the hair a rich golden yellow.”13 Even in a society where make-up was considered essential to beauty, women were nonetheless criticised for resorting to cosmetics. Michael Drayton’s satirical poem, The Moon Calf (1627), includes the following scathing lines:

“But her own natural beauty she disdains;
With oils and broths most venomous and base
She plasters over her well-favour’d face;
And those sweet veins by Nature rightly plac’d,
Wherewith she seem’d that white skin to have lac’d
She soon doth alter; and with fading blue
Blanching her bosom, she makes others new,
Blotting the curious workmanship of nature.”14

The Romans linked a fair complexion with beauty and love.

The practice of whitening the face with lotions and cosmetics persisted across Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and masks to shield ladies’ faces from the elements became fashionable accessories. A new whitener, made from the unlikely substance of powdered pig-bones, was sold alongside ceruse.15 The notion of paleness as a symbol of social rank became more and more entrenched, and society portraits by British artists, including Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), consistently show ladies painted with porcelain complexions. The delicate “rose and lily” complexion equally suited the tastes of those who embraced the French Rococo. It was a decorative style, characterised by delicate powdery colours and soft, curving forms, exemplified by the painter, François Boucher (1703-1770), whose primary patron was Madame de Pompadour. Mistress to King Louis XV, and his unofficial political advisor, Madame de Pompadour became one of the most powerful women in eighteenth-century France. The illegitimate daughter of an exiled financier, Madame de Pompadour had been groomed from childhood to become the mistress of a man of circumstance, a role she relished at Versailles. Educated and with a keen appetite for the arts, Madame de Pompadour sought to ennoble herself by cultivating a taste for art. Her style of dress and use of cosmetics formed part of her campaign to reinforce her position.16 Boucher’s painting Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette (1750-c.1760) embodies the Rococo sense of artifice and delicacy. The famous beauty is painted applying her make-up. She holds a small brush, the tip covered in pink powder while the white powder puff sits discarded in a pot in the foreground. Her dress perfectly mirrors her rose and lily complexion, as does the cameo of her lover, the King, prominently displayed on her wrist. This is a painting about make-up, self-fashioning and feminine beauty, but also power, status and ownership. Madame de Pompadour appears at ease, happy to show off the arts she has employed to make herself beautiful.

The desire for pale skin persists to this day and pale-faced beauty continues to capture the imagination of designers. Alexander McQueen has used models with heavily whitened faces, and Prada made an impact when it chose the famously pale Karen Elson to model for them. In 2013, Simone Rocha, inspired by an exhibition of Elizabethan portraiture, created a collection that responded to the fashion of that era, with corresponding pale make-up.

While some women were empowered by their porcelain complexions, whether natural or artificial, others were exposed to savage criticism for manipulating their appearance. The link between status and wealth in relation to a pale complexion may have faded but paleness as a beauty ideal persists to this day and continues to capture our imagination as it spreads across cultures. We might be unable to rid ourselves of the tendency to aspire and pursue extreme ideals but heeding history we might become aware of the fallacy that lies in favouring a single ideal at the expense of diversity.

1 Davis, Deborah, Sargent’s Women (New York: Woodbridge, 2003), 15.
2 In the late-1880s, Sargent, with Monet, led the campaign to preserve Olympia for the French nation.
3 Sharp William, “The Paris Salon”, The Art Journal (1884), 180.
4 Sidlauskas, Susan, “Painting Skin: John Singer Sargent’s ‘Madame X’”, American Art, 15, 3 (2001), 11.
5 Letter dated 10 February 1883 (Private collection);  quoted in Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond, eds. John Singer Sargent (London: Tate Gallery, 1998), 101.
6 Quoted in Sidlauskas, 11.
7 Buckley, Sandra, The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003), 90.
8 Angeloglou, Maggie, A History of Make-up (London: Studio Vista, 1970), 18.
9 Ovid, “The Art of Love, Book 1”, in J. Lewis May, trans. The Love Books of Ovid (New York: Kessinger, 1930), 120.
10 Ovid, “The Art of Love, Book 3”, in May, 159-160.
11 Green, Monica, ed. and trans., Trotula (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 100, 117-120.
12 Angeloglou, 50.
13 Martson, John, quoted in Joanna Pitman, On Blondes (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 114.
14 Drayton, Michael, “The Moon Calf” in Samuel Johnson, ed., The Works of the English Poets, Vol. IV (London, 1810), 129.
15 Angeloglou, 61.
16 Hedley, Jo, François Boucher: Seductive Visions (London: Wallace Collection, 2004), 99.