The Face of an Empire: Cosmetics and Whiteness in Imperial Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I

Tara Allen-Flanagan

When Queen Elizabeth I entered her fifties, she grew reluctant to sit for any more portraits. The final three portraits that she sat for—the Armada Portrait, The Ditchley Portrait, and the Oliver Miniature—painted between the mid-1580s and her death in 1602, portray the queen with a smooth, white face and bright coral lips and cheeks. The style of painting the queen’s face as seen in these last portraits was canonized as a pattern for future artists to follow when painting the queen during and after the last years of her reign. In the Elizabethan era, the English government often attempted to control how the queen was depicted in artwork; in 1596 the English Privy Council drafted a proclamation that required portraits of the queen to depict her as “beutyfull [sic] and magnanimous” as “God hathe blessed her.” In both art-historical scholarship and popular culture, the queen’s whitened skin and rouged lips and cheeks in her official portraiture are often cited as evidence of her vanity and waning looks. However, as I explore in this essay, the use of cosmetics in the early modern era was associated not only with narcissism but with England’s colonial efforts. By considering discourses about her status as a symbol of natural beauty and the racist associations with makeup application, I argue that the legibility of makeup on the queen’s face in imperial portraits and preservation of this motif as a pattern can be read as a symbol of her imperial and racial domination in the Americas and in England.

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Tara Allen-Flanagan is an MA student in art history working under the supervision of Dr. Mary Hunter. She has a BA in English literature and art history from McGill University and is the recipient of a Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) Master’s research scholarship. Her thesis research considers the influence of Japonisme and consumer culture on paintings of women applying makeup produced by artists Edouard Manet and Berthe Morisot in late nineteenth-century France.

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