‘She who doesn’t blush by blood blushes by art.’
I finally caught up with Cleopatra at the Louvre. I had stalked her from the Musée Gustave Moreau, where I had hoped she might be hiding. But although the overcrowded walls of the artist’s former home were testament to his passion for wilful women – his brush had erotically evoked Bathsheba, Salome and Delilah – his portrait of Cleo was nowhere to be seen.
‘We’ve got the poster,’ said the lady at the ticket desk apologetically. ‘But the original is at the Louvre.’
A quick call to the museum revealed that the painting was not on show. Almost as if the archivist could see my crestfallen expression at the other end of the line, she added, ‘If you like, you can make an appointment to come and see it.’
There are many other representations of Cleopatra in the Louvre, including a François Barois sculpture of the queen writhing voluptuously on a divan after being bitten by the infamous asp. In another wing, we can see Claude Lorrain’s The Disembarkation of Cleopatra at Tarsus (1643), an event that preceded her seduction of the Roman general Mark Antony. But the Cleopatra in that painting is a diminutive figure, dwarfed by the flotilla of ships heaving at the quayside, the magnificent buildings that tower above her retinue, and the blazing sunset that draws the eye to the horizon.
In Moreau’s late-19th-century watercolour, Cleo is the star of the show. And the palatial viewing room at the Prints and Drawings department of the Louvre was an ideal place to make her acquaintance. Marble columns strode into the distance. A fresco swarmed across the distant ceiling. Statues gazed from niches; cherubs smirked from bas-reliefs.
None of them were going to distract me from my rendezvous with the Egyptian monarch.
She was released from a rectangular black box, one of many lining the room’s infinity of shelves. For a moment I felt sorry that she was incarcerated here, prisoner number 27900, instead of taking her rightful place alongside Moreau’s other femmes fatales. But then, of course, I wouldn’t have been granted the privilege of a private audience.
The archivist gingerly placed the watercolour on an easel. Then she wandered off into the hush, allowing me to contemplate it at my leisure.
The Louvre’s description of the painting is thus: ‘Cleopatra seated, partially nude, in profile on a very high throne.’
Well, yes – but that hardly does the work justice. This is Cleopatra as we’ve always pictured her: the seductress of legend. She is framed by a brocaded curtain, as if on stage. She half-reclines on the throne, one bare leg coquettishly crooked, the other decorated with a tracery of henna. Her nakedness is emphasized by the sole garment she wears: a wisp of silk secured below her breasts by a jewelled clasp. She also wears a crown and a pearl earring; the queen, as we know, liked to dissolve pearls in wine. Her skin glows white under a full moon. Her expression is melancholy as she gazes towards the distant Sphinx (which was actually buried beneath the sand during her lifetime) and the pyramids. The fact that she is captured in profile allows us to admire her aquiline nose. ‘Cleopatra’s nose,’ wrote Blaise Pascal, of the looks that sapped Antony of strength and competence, ‘had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.’
In her right hand she holds a lily, although a rapier is well within reach. Her left hand lingers dangerously close to the small serpent that slides insidiously towards it. In the background there are silhouettes of buildings: an obelisk and a ruined temple. The queen looks radiant, but darkness lurks over her shoulder.
Cleopatra has fascinated for centuries. She is perhaps the earliest example of an icon of beauty, a precursor of the smooth-browed goddesses who gaze at us from advertising posters today. Yet despite all the legends about her, only one thing is certain: she existed. Cleopatra VII – the last and most notorious of the line – was born into the Ptolemaic dynasty in 69 bc. They styled themselves pharaohs, but in reality they were Greek; the first Ptolemy had served as a general under Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was more integrated than her forebears, who disdained even to speak Egyptian. A stone tablet in the Louvre, from 51 bc, shows her presenting an offering to the goddess Isis, of whom she claimed to be a reincarnation. Ironically, as was the tradition of the day, the Queen of Egypt is dressed as a man.
This tomboyish avatar raises interesting questions. There is little evidence to suggest that Cleopatra was a great beauty. There is even a vague suspicion that she might have been plain: Roman coins depict her with a hooked nose and a jutting jaw. In her (2010) book Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff adds to the portrait ‘full lips, a sharp, prominent chin, a high brow’ and ‘wide and sunken’ eyes. In his Life of Antony (ad 75), the Greek historian Plutarch hints that charisma was the true key to her success. ‘For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but to converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence… had something stimulating about it.’
Nor is there any proof that she bathed in ass’s milk, even if the beauty industry has been delighted to take that image and run with it. In the 1980s there was a French brand of soap called Cleopatra. An expensive TV commercial showed the queen sweeping into her private baths, accompanied as usual by an entourage of slave girls, musicians and bodyguards with oiled biceps.
Having said that, it is more than likely that Cleopatra had an extensive beauty regime, as did many Egyptian rulers before her.
First, of course, there was the kohl. This was in fact galena – lead sulphite – ground into a fine powder and mixed with animal fat to give it an adherent quality. ‘The fat [was] applied to the face with a small twig or stick, or a stylus of wood, bone, or ivory. In ancient times the stylus had its little case, and stylus and case together made a dainty little “compact”,’ recounts Beauty Treatment in Ancient Egypt, a vintage pamphlet published by the Egyptian State Tourist Department. The treatment was said to ward off flies, protect the eyes from the sun and stimulate the lachrymal gland, promoting constant cleansing. But the way it was applied, elongating the line of the eye, is thought to have been a reference to Horus, the falcon-headed sky god, bringer of light.
The ancient Egyptians believed that not only cleanliness, but also beauty, was next to godliness. According to Dominique Paquet, author of the (1997) book Miroir, Mon Beau Miroir: Une histoire de la beauté, the Egyptian ruling classes felt that their ritual cleansing practices brought them closer to the pantheon of the gods and distinguished them from everyday citizens, who carried out far more limited beauty regimes ‘separated from any esoteric significance’. Skin tone took on a class connotation, as a woman with fair skin clearly led a very different life to that of the bronzed labourer. This distinction was to remain in place for centuries to come.
When an Egyptian lady of leisure rose in the morning, a languorous routine lay ahead of her. First she took a bath, washing herself with the multipurpose cleaning agent netjeri – or natron, a mineral sourced from dry lake beds – blended with oil to form soap. The Egyptians also used natron in various dilutions to clean their teeth, antisepticize wounds and aid in the mummification process, owing to its antibacterial qualities (it is a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and salt).
The bath culminated in an exfoliating treatment using a paste called souabou, which contained clay and ash. Next came a massage with perfumed oil.
Egyptians kept themselves fragrant in the heavy summer heat by applying an ointment of turpentine and incense. They also possessed various remedies for pimples, blemishes and even wrinkles. ‘For smoothing wrinkles… a compound of powdered alabaster, powdered natron, salt from the north and honey was employed,’ writes Pierre Montet in his (1980) guide to Everyday Life in Egypt in the Days of Ramesses the Great.
Egyptian women dusted their skin with ochre to give it a lighter, golden hue. As well as lining their eyes with kohl, they painted their eyelids with malachite, turquoise, terra cotta or charcoal. Their eyebrows were plucked and elongated, their lashes darkened. Their lips were reddened with carmine.
Hairstyles varied according to era and occasion. We know that women used metallic headbands and pins of ivory to control their locks. Pierre Montet insists that, in the time of Ramses, hair was cut short and tied into tiny plaits. Other sources suggest that women of the same period shaved their hair and wore perfumed wigs of silk, horsehair or indeed human hair. These hung in tresses or tight curls, augmented with strands of gold. The wealthy affected coronets and diadems of gold, malachite, turquoise, garnet and other precious substances. Jewellery in general was abundant, both for purely decorative purposes and in the form of amulets to ward off evil spirits.
Hands and feet were meticulously cared for: nails were polished or coloured with henna; the latter was probably also used to decorate skin. Wealthy households were equipped with a sophisticated array of grooming tools: combs and tweezers; hooked blades and knives for manicures and pedicures; razors that had evolved from sharpened stones into slivers of bronze. Circular discs of bronze were used as mirrors; copper, silver and gold mirrors have also been found.
Egypt became the hub of a veritable beauty trade. The highly successful ruler Hatshepsut (‘Foremost of Noble Ladies’), who reigned from 1479 to 1458 bc, was certainly aware of the importance of fragrances and cosmetics. In the 19th year of her reign, the pharaoh organized a trade mission to the semi-mythical Land of Punt. Already the subject of a folk tale in Hatshepsut’s day – a shipwrecked sailor had told of a fertile island ruled by a serpent god – its location has since faded into obscurity: scholars are now at odds about whether it was located in modern Somalia or in Saudi Arabia.
Nevertheless, Hatshepsut’s five-ship delegation made it across the Red Sea to Punt and was warmly welcomed. The boats returned laden with myrrh trees, fabled for their pleasing fragrance. Punt became a key trading post on a network set up by Hatshepsut. ‘Until the first century, Egypt held a quasimonopoly on the transformation of raw ingredients,’ writes Dominique Paquet.
Like Cleopatra, Hatshepsut would not have viewed fragrances and cosmetics as mere tools of seduction. Beauty was an expression of divinity; perfume and powder were signifiers of status.
Greek gymnasia and Roman baths
While the Egyptians had a demonstrable weakness for bling, the Ancient Greeks had a more… Spartan attitude to beauty. There is some irony here, given that the word ‘cosmetics’ derives from the Greek kosmetike tekhne, meaning ‘the art of dress and adornment’.
The Greeks believed that beauty lay in natural harmony rather than the application of face paint. Indeed, make-up was banned in Sparta due to its association with courtesans. Tellingly, newly married women were permitted to wear a touch of make-up on their wedding night. This moment of shared pleasure was brief: Ancient Greece was a male-dominated society and from childhood women were exiled to the gynaeceum, a wing of the house reserved specifically for them. Grandmothers, married women, their daughters and female slaves all lived here, outside the mainstream of public life.
But if Greek society had a primitive attitude to sexual equality, it also had a highly developed body consciousness. Beauty, for the Ancient Greeks, was a matter of proportion. Men rigorously sculpted their bodies in gymnasia, even if they allowed themselves the luxury of a massage with perfumed oil afterwards. To judge from representations of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, the ideal woman had an oval face and an aquiline nose, a rounded yet youthfully firm body and prominent breasts. Her skin was expected to be of a uniform tone and – surprise, surprise – of surpassing pallor.
From the beginning of the 6th century before Christ, make-up techniques from the Orient began to filter into Athens. Women whitened their skin with ceruse – white lead – or powdered chalk, adding blusher in the form of crushed fig or mulberry. Eyelids were painted with saffron; eyebrows were plucked and blackened with kohl. Beauty preparations were passed down from mother to daughter.
Weakened by internal strife, Greece slowly ceded power to Rome. In the declining years of this great civilization, ordinary women felt able to leave their homes and move freely about the streets, so that others might appreciate their beauty.
The Romans themselves were no less stringent in their demands of women. The poet Ovid encouraged ladies to make the best of themselves in the last section of his Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love). ‘Taking pains brings beauty: beauty neglected dies.’ However, he warned women to use make-up discreetly, as any hint of deception might cool a lover’s ardour. ‘You know how to acquire whiteness with a layer of powder: she who doesn’t blush by blood, indeed, blushes by art… It’s no shame to highlight your eyes with thinned ashes, or saffron… Still, don’t let your lover find cosmetic bottles on your dressing table: art delights in its hidden face.’
Some believe that Ovid’s words were aimed at courtesans, but it is no secret that Romans took great pride in their appearance. Though the baths played a social function, they responded to a desire to be not only clean but also attractive. Fashionable Roman women were scrubbed, plucked and strapped into sylph-like visions of loveliness. Like the Greeks, they whitened their skin with ceruse, despite the knowledge that long-term use damaged the skin, blackened the teeth and played havoc with the nervous system, leading quite literally to a deathly pallor.
Darkness into light
Women of the Dark Ages did not lose this desire to lighten their skin, no matter what the cost. Paintings depict the futility of vanity – skin that was once pale and youthful dissolving like a movie special effect into a hideous vision of cratered flesh and sparse hair – but the seeming metaphor is a realistic depiction of the ravages of lead poisoning.
Neither did the rise of Christianity ease the pressure on women to conform to a certain vision of beauty. Now they were exhorted to appear pure and virginal, forever young. This new woman had small high breasts, long hair and a prominent belly – a symbol of fertility. She was torn between puritanical demands that she appear ‘natural’ and the knowledge that beauty treatments from the Orient would enable her to live up to unrealistic interpretations of that ideal.
In the medieval allegory The Romance of the Rose, begun around 1230 by Guillaume de Lorris, a ‘lovely and beautiful maiden’ is described. ‘Her hair shone fair as a burnished bowl, her flesh was more tender than a young chick’s, her forehead radiant and her brows arched… her eyes as bright as a falcon’s.’ To these advantages are added ‘a pink and white face’, a ‘full-lipped mouth’ and a ‘dimpled chin’. Lorris informs us twice that her neck is long, soft and pale, while her skin is happily ‘free from spots or sores’. And in case we still haven’t got the picture, he concludes that ‘her throat was as white as snow freshly fallen on the branch, her body well formed and slender’. As if to sum up the moral tug of war that such fantasies provoked in medieval men, Lorris then informs us that the name of the rose is ‘Idleness’.
This suggests that beauty treatments were the preserve of the wealthy and indolent. Nevertheless, a canon emerged. Eyebrows were plucked and dyed. A high forehead was a sign of breeding and intellect, so it became an unlikely erogenous zone. Women plucked and shaved their hairlines to achieve the effect. They used orpiment (arsenic trisulphide) to keep unwanted hair at bay. Sheer headscarves or decorative headbands drew attention to this desirable feature. Remaining hair was worn long and occasionally braided, ornamented with strands of gold and pearls. Yet the demands of modesty meant that married women covered their hair with scarves or bonnets: medieval beauty was a mass of contradictions.
As Dominique Paquet observes, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century enabled the wider diffusion of beauty remedies. One of the most influential documenters of such knowledge was Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forlì, a powerful Renaissance noblewoman who dabbled in alchemy. Between 1492 and 1509 she wrote Gli Experimenti, a veritable beauty manual for Renaissance women. They were urged to boil snakeskin in wine to regenerate their complexions, while an infusion of snails and mallow was said to aid hair growth. To lighten the hair, ingredients such as saffron, sulphur and cinnabar were mixed into a dye. Volume 2 of The Greenwood Encyclopaedia of Clothing through World History (edited by Jill Condra in 2008) adds that she ‘concocted several different “beauty waters” to brighten the complexion and remove freckles’. Sforza may have felt that dispensing this wisdom consolidated her image as a woman to be reckoned with, a conservator of arcane practices that were close to witchcraft.
The same source notes the existence of several similar manuscripts, such as the Secreti by Isabella Cortese, published in Venice in 1584. This proposes recipes ‘using ingredients that nowadays appear mysterious, if not scary’. For example, Cortese claimed to have discovered, during her travels in Eastern Europe, a concoction that could remove facial spots and provide the complexion of a 15-year-old. ‘To whiten the face, it was recommended that a woman mix rosewater, rock salt, cinnamon, powdered lily bulbs, egg white and milk’; alternatively, she could try ‘lemon juice, white wine, breadcrumbs and nutmeg’.
Light, clarity, the life-giving rays of the sun: as in many previous cultures, these were associated with the light of God. Thanks to its associations with youth and divinity – as well as its rarity – blonde hair was deeply desirable. To achieve it, Venetian women would soak their locks in a mixture of lemon juice, ammonia and urine, and then sit on their terraces with their hair arrayed over the wide brims of crownless straw hats (which also prevented their skins from becoming tanned). Such is the doubtful provenance of the Venetian blonde.
From the writings of Sforza and Cortese, it becomes clear that Renaissance beauty was a dangerous blend of science and sorcery.
Corsets and crinolines
Death by lead poisoning was the ultimate price to pay for beauty, but discomfort was the very least women could expect to suffer. This was heightened from the 16th century by the adoption of the corset, which enhanced the bust and suppressed the waist. Even before adolescence, girls were fastened into contraptions of iron or whalebone, which squeezed their ribs to such an extent that deformity and organ damage were not uncommon. Freakishly exaggerated busts and tiny waists were combined with increasingly voluminous skirts that entirely concealed the lower part of the body.
For Georges Vigarello, author of Histoire de la Beauté (2004), this development reflected the fact that aesthetic ideals of beauty derived from the contemplation of sculptures and portraits. The face, shoulders and bust were exalted, while everything below the waist was hidden, as if the skirts formed a decorative pedestal on which the bust rested. In addition, the hierarchy of the body conformed to the order of the universe: the head was closer to heaven; the feet rested on earth.
The application of make-up also acknowledged the influence of art: white cheeks lightly daubed with rouge gave the angelic appearance of a cherub in a Renaissance fresco. The fashionable – and here we are also talking about men – wanted to ensure that they remained elevated from the filth and savagery of nature; hence artifice was pushed to extremes. White lead now powdered the faces of both sexes, and was accompanied by powdered wigs. Women who strolled in the Jardin des Tuileries in 17th-century Paris protected their complexions from the sun with Venetian-style masks. Blemishes were concealed with false beauty spots – known as ‘mouches’, or ‘flies’ – that became popular fashion accessories across Europe.
In the 18th century the passion for paleness momentarily declined, only to be replaced by a rage for rouge among the aristocracy of France and Regency England. This masked the weariness provoked by endless balls and nights at the gaming tables, as well as mimicking a state of sexual excitement. According to figures unearthed by Dominique Paquet, more than two million pots of rouge were sold in France in 1781, including the version used by Marie Antoinette, which was made by ‘Sieur Dubuisson’ of the rue des Ciseaux.
The French Revolution robbed the aristocrats of their wigs – and more besides – and provoked a return to ‘natural’ beauty. Clothing regained an almost Grecian simplicity. This inevitably put paleness back on the agenda; but now it evolved into a moody and Romantic pallor, as if fashionable women had been struck simultaneously by a mysterious malady. In order to achieve the effect, writes Paquet, ‘Women drank but vinegar, ate but lemons and read late into the night to provoke dark circles under their eyes.’ They were the heroines of Gothic novels – Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, or The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis.
Towards the middle of the 19th century, however, another type of woman emerged – one who began to infringe on the territory of men for the first time. In Paris she was known as ‘La Lionne’. She rode and fenced, swam and read the newspapers. She was a forerunner of the Gibson Girl, an American archetype created in the 1890s by the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson: tall, slender, athletic, yet a paragon of beauty, with eyes glowing from beneath sensuous lashes and masses of hair piled with artful nonchalance on her head.
Like Gibson’s creation, La Lionne was a largely fictional figure. In reality, women were expected to be more decorative than ever: their curves exaggerated by the corsets that crushed their waists, their legs invisible under swirling crinolines. Tomorrow was still another day.
The kingdom of rouge
Rouge was deployed with more subtlety than it had been a century earlier, but once again it was highly fashionable. In 1894, the English satirist Max Beerbohm wrote an essay called ‘A defence of cosmetics’, in which he hints at a growing democratization of beauty. ‘[T]he use of pigments is becoming general, and most women are not so young as they are painted,’ he reports, cruelly. Earlier in the piece he notes:
No longer is a lady of fashion to be blamed if, to escape the outrageous persecution of time, she fly for sanctuary to the toilet table… [It is] no wonder that within the last five years the trade of the makers of cosmetics has increased immoderately – twenty-fold, so one of these makers has told me. We need but walk down any modish street and peer into the little broughams that flit pass or… under the bonnet of any woman we meet, to see over how wide a kingdom rouge reigns.
Back in Paris, too, the democratization of beauty had progressed apace. In 1830, according to Vigarello, the pots of rouge offered by the Reine des Fleurs boutique in rue Saint Martin ranged in price from 5 francs to 85 francs, while the average workman earned less than 3 francs a day. By 1851, however, an advertisement by a cosmetics company named A Schoelcher promised products for ‘every class of society’, including pink or white powder at 1 franc a pot (or 60 centimes for a half-pot).
Skin creams were also more widely available. In his (2010) book Beauty Imagined: A history of the global beauty industry, Geoffrey Jones writes:
There was a small luxury trade for most of the 19th century. This market consisted largely of two types of products sold by perfumers: ‘milks’, or emulsions intended to freshen and clean the face, made by crushing the seeds of plants, such as roses, and mixing with water; and ‘cold creams’, made from mixing fats with water and used to smooth skin.
These competed, of course, with domestic creams ‘whose ingredients were passed down from generation to generation like kitchen recipes’.
By the turn of the century, the fabrication of ‘beauty products’ was evolving into an industry. One young woman, in particular, symbolized this transition. Chaja, to use her original name, had been born in 1870 in Krakow, Poland, where her father was a shopkeeper. Although she initially wished to study medicine, she came under increasing pressure from her parents to marry a wealthy local widower. To escape this fate she travelled to Australia, where her uncle Bernhard kept a store in the remote outpost of Coleraine, Western Victoria.
The local ladies, whose skins had been reddened by sun and roughened by dust, were entranced by Chaja’s pale, unblemished complexion. She ascribed it to a Polish face cream made by a certain Dr Jacob Lykusky and promised to write home for supplies. She soon began selling the product under the brand name Crème Valaze. In no time, she had a thriving business and a small salon in Melbourne.
By then she had Westernized her first name, creating what was to become a global brand: Helena Rubinstein.