Making up Representation:
The Risks of Femininity
What is art? Prostitution.
Writing in the seventeenth century, Jean de La Bruyère remarked:
For a woman to paint herself red or white is, I admit, a smaller crime than to say one thing and think another; it is also something less innocent than to disguise herself or to go masquerading, if she does not pretend to pass for what she seems to be, but only thinks of concealing her personality and of remaining unknown; it is an endeavor to deceive the eye, to wish to appear outwardly what she is not; it is a kind of "white lie." We should judge of a woman without taking into account her shoes and head-dress, and, almost as we measure a fish, from head to tail.
The severity toward women demonstrated by this text was highly uncharacteristic of classical France. In a century in which the majority of authors paid homage to the sovereignty of women—whether in politics, during the Regency or the Fronde, or in the worldly society of the salons—La Bruyère undeniably appears as an exception. On the whole, the men of the Grand Siècle were "feminists," if we can use such an anachronistic term, and they said as much. From Corneille to Perrault via the Libertines, from the Jesuits to the Jansenists of Port Royal, the majority of writers indefatigably celebrated the acuteness and discrimination of "feminine reason." Even Descartes recognized its superiority, as his letters to Elisabeth and Christine de Suède eloquently testify. The fineness of women's judgment and the intelligence of their conversation were universally admired. There were no terms flattering enough to describe the pleasing turns that women alone knew how to give to thought. This talent attested to a politeness of understanding that contemporaries took as a sign of the highest moral distinction. The discourse of misogyny in authors such as Molière was an isolated phenomenon, and, if made subject to generalization, easily leads to false conclusions about the "spirit of the age."
However, La Bruyère's text can be seen as exemplary of a certain discourse on femininity, even if it cannot serve to prove the existence, in the seventeenth century, of a discourse against femininity. In associating a critique of women with a condemnation of makeup, La Bruyère extends a topos already clichéd by this time; his thought takes place within a long tradition that had never separated the problematic of ornament from that of femininity. This tradition consistently
joined the dissipation of an ever deceitful sex and the excess of overly made-up representation in the same aesthetic-moral condemnation. From antiquity to the classical age, the seductions of makeup were thought to correspond, in the hierarchy of representations, with the aberrations of femininity. It was as if the luster added to appearances could only be thought through categories designating a sex whose essence, it was said, consists precisely of the deprivation of essence—since its nature, ontologically deficient, is necessarily exhausted in its simulation of appearances. Makeup, woman : two terms signifying the same substance, or rather the same absence of substance—as La Bruyère wrote, "a kind of white lie."
Such an analogy clearly played a decisive role in the history of theories of representation. All analysis of representation that poses the question of ornament must determine the proper importance of the artifices that embellish appearance. If adornment is necessary for beauty, too much ornament distorts nature and truth: we can summarize thus an aesthetic principle, current until France's classical period and still shaping our own discourse. This principle implies an essential distinction that constitutes all metaphysical aesthetics, allowing one to separate the wheat from the tares: a distinction between ornament and makeup, between a regulated and unregulated use, between lawful employment and abuse. Used to excess, ornament becomes makeup, which conceals rather than elucidates truth. This distinction, the secret of cosmetics as taught in the schools of metaphysics since Plato, was applied in the same manner to language and to the image. In the case of language, it was addressed to the din of hyperbole, the indulgence of metaphor, the glut of tropes that were charged with overwhelming content and obscuring the purity of the idea. In the case of the image, the distinction concerned coloration, whose brilliance was accused of hiding the figure, of shrouding the line and corrupting its efficacy. The analogy is often explicit in medieval rhetoricians: "Employed sparingly, rhetorical figures enhance style just as colors bring out a drawing; when used too lavishly, they obscure it and cause the clear line to disappear."
In the rhetorical tradition, Latin authors from the beginning represented excessive ornamentation through metaphors of femininity. In the immense repertoire of corporeal images used to define qualities of style, those referring to the feminine body clearly occupied a privileged place. Thus, when Cicero attempted to describe a simple style, he compared it to a woman "without trappings," whose naturalness "suits her well." He recommended leaving aside overly gaudy ornament and excessively bright colors, and taking as a model those beauties whose simplicity has no need for enhancement by pearls and makeup. Like an honest woman's tresses, this style should unfurl with the movement of a natural wave: "One will even eschew the curling iron." But we should remember that this modest genre does not correspond, according to Cicero, to the sublime style, which must be passionate and majestic, solemn and ornate, richly colored and violently moving. Even so, the majority of criticism addressed to Cicero's orations
specifically attacked their abundance of ornament as a sign of Asiatic bad taste. If we believe Tacitus, Brutus reproached Cicero for his "enervated" and "emasculated" eloquence, and Quintilian reported criticism of his "almost effeminate" style. The innumerable critics of rhetoric, in fact, have generally condemned such Asiatic stylistic figures in a vocabulary borrowed from the lexicon of the prostituted body, from the indecent attire and the profligate sexuality of women, as if every manifestation of an excessive taste for images could only be thought through the aesthetic-moral category of perversity, of a culpable seduction that originates in a certain femininity. Here, Dionysius of Halicarnassus' descriptions are particularly revealing. He depicts Asiatic rhetoric as a prostitute who is now installed in the house of language after having ousted the legitimate bride, the sweet and virtuous Attic muse:
In the epoch preceding our own, the old philosophic Rhetoric was so grossly abused and maltreated that it fell into a decline. . . . Another Rhetoric stole in and took its place, intolerably shameless and histrionic, ill-bred and without a vestige either of philosophy or any other aspect of liberal education. It was altogether vulgar and disgusting, and finally made the Greek world resemble the houses of the profligate and the abandoned: just as in such households there sits the lawful wife, freeborn and chaste, but with no authority over her domain, while an insensate harlot, bent on destroying her livelihood, claims control of the whole estate, treating the other like dirt and keeping her in a state of terror.
Debauched, vulgar, seductive, and excessively made up, such wanton eloquence decidedly bore the stigmata of dissolute femininity, or rather of a dissoluteness which is that of femininity itself. For a further demonstration, it suffices to read the long analyses dedicated by Quintilian to the question of ornament in which he contrasts "made-up," emasculated rhetoric, corrupted by effeminacy, with the healthy eloquence of the virile orator.
These figures and analogies were first used to designate the perverted forms of a rhetorical style that delights in the infinite play of discourse's manner at the expense of its matter. They soon invaded the analysis of painting, where they served to denounce certain "corrupt" practices of pictorial representation: an indulgence in the refinements of the brush stroke and the immoderate pleasures of color. The same metaphors played a decisive role in the quarrel that opposed the followers of Poussin, the defenders of drawing, to those of Rubens, the partisans of color, in seventeenth-century France. In painting, such a metaphorization of makeup acquired even more resonance to the degree that its object, coloring, appeared in the work as a physical fact. Coloring , when applied to painting—the preeminent and essential cosmetic art, consisting of both "staining" (teindre ) and "feigning" (feindre ) —became no longer just a word but sensible, tactile, and visible, made of paste and ointments, genuine pigments like those used in women's cosmetics. The seductive artifice of the coloring praised by the colorists partook of the courtesan's and prostitute's allures. Here, love is not very
different from art; in both cases, cosmetic illusion must be seen as a promise of illicit pleasures.
Just as the magical attractions of coloring were found to be similar to the charms of feminine seduction, they also became a focus for the same moral reprobation. If a picture's embellishments could be seen as "makeup," the painting becomes a woman, and one of the most dangerous sort: illegitimate, like the pleasure for which she serves as a metaphor. Neither virgin nor wife but single and therefore libertine, such women had already been accused by Dionysius of Halicarnassus of intruding into the house of eloquence in order to evict the Attic muse. Asiatic when she overwhelms the citadel of language, this figure of the courtesan becomes a colorist when she takes on painting in order to banish drawing. In 1662, several years before the disegno-colore quarrel that had occupied the Italians during the previous century was taken up in the setting of the French academy, Fréart de Chambray published The Idea of the Perfection of Painting , a slight volume of rather violent tone. In it, he denounced the corruption of the visual arts: those responsible for painting's decadence are the colorists, "who have introduced through their cabal an unheard-of libertine painting that is entirely free from all the constraints that formerly made that art so admirable and so difficult." These conspirators, he continued, "have made themselves a new mistress, coquettish and waggish, who asks only for some makeup and colors in order to please at the first encounter, without worrying if she will please for very long."
We know that this warning had hardly any effect, as the power of the "cabal" continued to grow stronger in the following decade. During this period, the colorists found a remarkable leader in Roger de Piles. In 1668, twenty years after the founding of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, de Piles retook the initiative against the partisans of drawing who reigned at the Academy, with the goal of conquering the doctrinal and institutional terrain. This battle lasted almost half a century, ending with the victory of the colorists, at least on the institutional level, when de Piles was elected Amateur Counselor of the Academy on 25 April 1699. Even so, on 26 April 1697, or only two years before de Pile's election and therefore at a time when the partisans of drawing were already weakened, Noel Coypel took up the accusation again in similar terms, telling the Academy "that it would be of grave consequence to the progress of the arts of drawing . . . if one authorized such license and attributed the essence of painting to coloring"—a statement in which the word and clearly plays a decisive role.
Of all the metaphors for makeup, that of the courtesan, the woman of easy virtue and venal loves, was doubtless the most frequently invoked. It offered the advantage of a focus for any criticism likely to be addressed to representation, whether concerned with the truth of the image or with the legitimacy of one's pleasure in it. The metaphor of the courtesan provided a transhistorical rallying point where protagonists of the most heterogeneous philosophies could unite. Here the Platonic criticism of the cosmetic met the Pauline condemnation of
women's hair and joined with diverse accusations against all forms of libertinism, both moral and sexual. Coloring was reproached not so much for pleasing as for leading the spectator astray from the correct path, luring him to the ruin of illegitimate pleasure, enticing him onto the paths of aesthetic adultery. Once again painting resembles love: the only authorized pleasure is to be one permanently inscribed in time that preserves pleasure from momentary fluctuations and unforeseen occasions of desire.
Thus, the charge most frequently addressed to the charms of color was that of "pleasing at the first encounter," as Fréart de Chambray said, the immediacy of seduction invalidating both the qualities of the object and the pleasures of the spectator. Immediacy pertains to the same category as ephemerality and chance, one that metaphysics obliges us to think of as ontologically deficient. Color, likewise, is as evanescent in its material nature as in its effects. Are not its charms, accused of engendering an insubstantial pleasure, equally accountable for painting's material fragility, for its deterioration and, indeed, for its ultimate loss? Is not color unstable by definition, responsible as well for the difficult problems of conservation? And finally, is not its beauty, which pleases too easily, simply the result of a contingent gesture by the painter, a gesture just as immediate as the regard of the spectator it seduces? Pictorial color is initially, in fact, a spot: the macchia whose secrets Leonardo deciphered, an effect of the instant if not of chance, as the often cited history of Protogenes demonstrates. Unable to succeed at representing the foam in the nostrils of the horse he was painting, this painter angrily threw his sponge against the canvas, spotting it with a stain that instantly produced the pictorial effect he had so desperately sought.
Since Plato, an identification between the problematics of color and of chance has been a constant in the analysis of painting. Color belongs to the universe of unstable matter and contingent effects. It is the most variable aspect of the shifting illusion of appearances, and it is that part of a representation which is completely immersed in the sensible. As opposed to drawing, which assumes the course of a line and the skeleton of a design, color hurls its flames blindly, instantaneously, and by chance. For Aristotle, "a painter who smeared on the most beautiful colors at random would give less pleasure than he would by making a likeness of something in black and white." And, as if language were in complicity with metaphysics, this conception of color, thought through the diverse modalities of temporal contingency, chance, ephemerality, and immediacy, is reinforced through the common origin of the French words dessein and dessin , both deriving from disegnare , which means simultaneously "to draw" and "to make a plan" (as design in English).
Only in these terms can we understand the general suspicion provoked by all that appeared as makeup. This mistrust bore witness to an undoubtedly archaic fear, one that was sustained by a long tradition that condemned all that appeared unstable, fugitive, and transitory, and that denounced both their images and the
pleasure they aroused; the world of the heterogeneous, the ephemeral, and the qualitative that is often characterized as feminine—because the feminine has often been portrayed by these attributes. Paradoxically, the most explicit discourse on this subject in the seventeenth century can be found in the writings of the Chevalier de Méré, a Libertine whom we might have expected to defend colorism. This connoisseur of fugitive pleasures, of chance encounters and opportune delights, should have appreciated the immediate seductions of painting as well as those of love. However, his arguments indicate an absolute resistance point at which epicurianism is strangely confounded with puritanism. A compliment he addressed to one of his correspondents is revealing in this regard: "It seems to me that you are not like those beauties who initially surprise, but only at first sight." Certainly, such flattery is a commonplace of masculine gallantry, and it is not devoid of ambiguity. This appreciation, however, which could have been written by a moralist, is justified by de Méré through an aesthetic of distance, indeed one of the most salient features of the Libertine's ethics, in which desire refuses to let itself become attached to any object. The flaw of such dazzling beauties, said de Méré, is that they obsess one because they please in excess. "That radiant beauty is almost always false; and what ensures that you eventually detest her, although she initially enraptured you, is . . . that she absorbs too much, and you do not want to be dazzled for too long." At its basis, the Libertine's taste remained very classical. After all, he was a rationalist whose philosophy was inscribed in a Cartesian heritage. He also required beauty to please without (too much) seduction in order to maintain the distance necessary to keep control over representation. Should we be surprised that our author continued his letter with an analogy to painting? "I am certain that an excellent painter, of the finest craft, would not use it thus, if he wished to make the beauty of a woman or goddess appealing. He would take extreme care not to place on her person, or anywhere in the painting, a brilliance that would affix the sight or the thought."
If Fréart de Chambray condemned the "makeup" of painting because it excited only momentary pleasure, de Méré reproached it for arousing a pleasure that was too intense. However, both these discourses expressed, in their own ways, identical desires for mastery and equal fears of dissolving, for an instant, in a fascination with their object. Not durable enough for one critic, too powerful for the other, simultaneously too trifling and too violent, the beauties of coloring are decidedly refractory to signification and rebellious to all determination. And, in order to exercise its power, consciousness wants its conceptual distinctions to correspond to real ones—so that the pleasure of appearance would only be inessential, and that the artificial never be confused with the natural. Fundamentally, the Libertine maintained a system of traditional distinctions, even if he inverted its values. He demanded that the accidental be the object of a merely superficial pleasure and innocuous desire. Whether in the name of virtue or pleasure, the grievance against makeup was always that it did not respect the distinctions nec-
essary for the subject to be master of himself; it was criticized for effacing the boundaries introduced by thought between different orders—between appearance and reality, surface and depth, necessity and contingency, heaviness and lightness, gravity and ephemerality.
If tyranny, as Pascal said, consists in a desire for domination "beyond its scope," the seductions of coloring are surely tyrannical. Their powers violate the limits that the subject imposes on representation and carry him away in a pleasure that is not controlled by any rule and not obedient to any law. Here pleasure exceeds the limits of discursivity. Like the passions, the beauties of pictorial coloring escape from the determination of the linguistic order. The Italian and French colorists were frequently reproached for their wish to define painting by a quality that cannot be the object of any discourse, thus jeopardizing the liberal dignity, so dearly acquired, of painting. How does one name a pleasure that eludes all signification? Since the Renaissance, the defenders of the nobility of painting had deplored such pleasure: the emotion that seized the spectator—enraptured by the charms of coloring, dazzled by the gleaming embellishments of the vision offered to him—always showed itself in a difficulty of enunciation, in a privation of speech and the faltering of language. How could one theorize this aspect of depiction, subordinated to chance and not obedient to any rules? If the pleasure of color is impossible to describe, the practice of color is impossible to teach.
The colorists' task, as we have seen, was not easy. In taking up the defense of color, they attacked the domination of discourse as well as the superiority of drawing, the hegemony of a mimetic and therefore metaphysical conception of the image along with the privilege of the idea for representation, the principles of morality at the same time as the pedagogic virtues of rules. They insolently defended the purely sensible qualities of painting, indecently vindicating makeup, pleasure, and seduction. They libertinely praised color for the confusion into which its semblances threw its spectators. In this way, the force of the colorists' attack was not only aesthetic but theoretical as well, since it affirmed the nobility and dignity of painting while refusing to submit to the traditional discourses of legitimation. This rebellion was already evident in the writings of the Italian colorists, although their defiance was timid and often cautious. Perhaps still too much caught up in metaphysics, the Italians were beneficiaries as well of a political climate that encouraged subtle alliances and delicate compromises. The French critics, however, obliged by the existence of the Academy and the resulting institutional conflicts to systematize their aesthetic orientation, abandoned this reserve. Thus de Piles, without hesitation or doubt, proposed an audacious, philosophically unprecedented apology for the beauty of makeup while taking up the defense of what could be called an erotics of painting. His theory borrowed the majority of its terms from that hitherto vilified image of culpable femininity which had previously served to characterize the artifices of seduction. In doing
so, de Piles was the first to take up a radically new discourse on seduction. How to please without seducing: to this question, which had never ceased to obscure the analysis of representation and to embarrass all who tried to escape from the norms of a puritan aesthetic, de Piles responded without ambiguity. From his point of view, it was simply impossible: in order to give pleasure, one must seduce. And since one cannot seduce without recourse to the allures of artifice, it is necessary to use makeup in order to please.
Indeed, Rubens's painting could be seen as only "beautiful makeup," but it would be naive or stupid to criticize him for this. "It is true that this is makeup, but we should wish that all current paintings were made up in this way. We already know that all painting is only makeup, that it is part of its essence to deceive, and that the greatest deceiver in this art is the greatest painter." The same idea, in many variations, traverses all of de Pile's texts: painting should seize the spectator, strike him at first glance, attract him violently, force him to stop, take him by surprise, reduce him to silence—in brief, seduce him (in its proper sense) by obliging him to interrupt his course and turn his gaze. Accepting without reticence this analogy of painting with passion, de Piles describes the spectator's relation to the painting in a vocabulary drawn from the lexicon of amorous discourse. In the case of both painting and passion, seduction is immediate and acts in a brutal and unexpected manner. The spectator must be seized by the surprises of coloring just as the lover is victimized by the surprises of love: his pleasure must literally take the form of a ravishment. Like those beauties who are "fatal" because all succumb to their charms, true painting is irresistible. The theme is repeated in a number of passages taken at random from de Pile's Cours de peinture par principes:
True painting must call its spectator . . . and the surprised spectator must go to it. (4)
A painting in which the drawing and the detail of coloring are mediocre but enhanced by the artifice of chiaroscuro will not let its spectator pass tranquilly; it will call him and at least occasionally stop him. (301)
The true painting is thus that which calls us (so to speak) by surprising us; and it is only through the power of this effect that we are forced to approach it, as if it had something to tell us. (3)
But if, seen from afar, the image seduces and unsettles the spectator to the point of making him speechless, the painting itself, when seen up close, condemns him to a still greater silence. When, finally regaining his spirits and becoming master of himself again, he succeeds in tearing himself away from the power of the image and approaches the painting in order to describe those qualities that have imposed silence on him, it is only to discover that his recovered speech is of no help. This same spectator who, an instant earlier, stood dumbfounded at the sight of the image, now, before the density of pictorial matter, discovers the impotence of habitual procedures of language. How can he speak of coloring? What
can be say about a painting that would be a discourse on painting, and not just a discourse on the image? He does not know what to say of the painting as painting, except that it exerts a specific effect that consists of the ruin of all possible articulation. Of the painting's beauty, he could say, like Nero before Junia, "Transported by the sight,/I wished to speak to her but lost my voice."
Feminine, indecent, unnameable, and illicit, makeup gives itself over to the gaze in the dissolution of speech. The beauties of coloring are those of the Medusa. And this Medusa of abundant and terrifying hair occurs in painting with the features of a woman who has often been represented by painters as holding the head of a man by his hair: the figure of Judith. We should not be surprised that the story of Judith has had such success in painting from the time of the Renaissance. Whatever her other meanings—and we do not pretend to any scientific or iconographic truth—Judith seems also an allegory of makeup, an allegory of painting in its essence and in its effects. If Narcissus, as Alberti found, was the inventor of painting, it was of painting as mimetic representation, an illusive double where the "I" projects itself, and not as a blinding representation of the other. After all, Narcissus had only succumbed to the charms of an image, his own image, while Holofernes died from having been seduced by the gleaming finery of femininity, from having desired the opposite sex in its brilliance and having met it in its reality.
We learn from reading the Jesuit works on rhetoric from the period of the Counter-Reformation that Judith was indeed considered to be an allegory of makeup. In the frontispiece of La Doctrine curieuse des beaux esprits de ce temps by Father Garasse (1622), a vignette representing Judith cutting off Holoferne's head figures as an emblem for eloquence. Earlier, in 1593, Father Possevino had used this same image to allegorize the triumphant eloquence of the Christian church. As Marc Fumaroli writes, "These images of murder and war, this allegory of Judith-as-priest, an ascetic adapting herself to the role of a courtesan in order to trick and destroy her adversary, were characteristic of a book full of the zeal of the reconquista ." Rather than a "made-up," "permanent-waved" eloquence, a "courtesan overflowing with feminine artifice, wrapped in a multicolored robe," as characterized by Father de Cressoles, certain Jesuits preferred a simpler eloquence, less colored, of more modest beauty, which, while seeking to please, refused to resort to the sensual artifices of seduction. To the made-up rhetoric allegorized by Judith, Father Louis Carbone opposed the chaste eloquence best allegorized by the virtuous beauty of Esther.
Esther or Judith? Pleasure or seduction? We recognize the same debate that in antiquity set the defenders of Atticism against the partisans of Asiaticism, and whose concern, we recollect, was the role and the importance of makeup in representation. But if the debate is the same, the terms and the balance of forces have changed—first, because Asiatic influence incontestably triumphed during the Baroque era; and, second, because these two "styles" of discourse, simple or
ornamental, were now inscribed in a different system of metaphors. Where the Latin authors opposed healthy and virile rhetoric against the eunuchlike eloquence of an emasculated language—or masculinity to femininity—the French authors at the end of the sixteenth century and especially during the seventeenth century contrasted two feminine figures, two equally heroic images of women. As Fumaroli notes again, "For the men of the seventeenth century, the figures of sacred and profane history were often feminine allegories." This indeed demonstrates that during the seventeenth century, as we have shown, women were very much loved. Doubtless this is because, at the court of the French kings, makeup was also very much appreciated.
—Translated by Katharine Streip