Face and Image. Cosmetics and Art, 1500 – 1800

Project Details


Wider research context/theoretical framework
The project studies the meaning and function of make-up as an embellishing-art in artistic, medical, scientific, and philosophical discourses of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in Italy, England, and France. Bringing art together with physiological knowledge, it will provide a conceptualization of cosmetics as a vehicle of early modern art theory, practice, and critique.

Hypotheses/research questions/objectives
In early modern Europe, writings about cosmetics intertwined medical knowledge with actual art theory and experiences of artisanal practice, but also with traditional criticism of pictures and the artificial as a whole. These discourses were fostered during periods of iconoclasm such as in England during the 1530s and 1640s. Thereby, literature about techniques of physical embellishment provides a critical discourse on the status of pictures and the visible world.

The project aims to investigate the interplay of painting and cosmetics in terms of art theory, art history, and historical epistemology. By analyzing portraiture alongside writings from natural philosophy, drama, and art, it will shed light on this complex nexus by questioning the status of the constructed human face in relation to physiological knowledge, art practice and theory, as well as to artworks themselves. It will develop a fundamental basis of terminology and conceptual history of cosmetics techniques of the human face. Then, by confronting the conceptional level of face painting with artistic practice, it will explore if the art theoretical and epistemological capacities of face-painting were reflected by painting itself. For this reason, the project will focus portraiture.
The analysis of English make-up will provide a basis of both archival and hermeneutical research that will be contextualized in examples from the major art centers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, i.e., in Italy (Titian), the Netherlands (Peter Paul Rubens) and France (François Boucher). It will consider both the theoretical tradition of face-painting as well as artisanal and artistic practice.

Level of originality/innovation
Such an approach will counterbalance the critical and iconoclastic topoi of ‘art’ literally in the positive sense of skilled and artistic knowledge, and production in order to analyze cosmetics as a missing link at the convergence of body, image, and artist. The project will contribute to the differentiation and specification of central categories of Early Modern image- and culture theory that will include ‘natural’, ‘artificial’, ‘enlivenment’, alongside the paradigm of ‘color’. Thus, the project will provide a foundation for the history of the ‘artwork’ in the early modern period.

Primary researchers involved
Dr. Romana Sammern will be principle investigator. The research will be undertaken during the fellowship period of 36 months in the Department of Art History, Salzburg University.
Short titleFace and Image
Effective start/end date1/03/2128/02/26