- Painting Women: Cosmetics, Canvases and Early Modern Culture
Studying the so-called cosmetic debate in conjunction with the theories of the art of painting in early modern Europe is an interesting and intriguing idea. The connections between the acts of adorning one's face and of creating an image on a panel are mentioned, or alluded to, in several Renaissance texts. As Patricia [End Page 1259] Phillippy points out, in Della Famiglia (1434) Leon Battista Alberti identifies wives and statues as objects which can and are generally acquired by discriminating men. Likewise, in De institutione feminae Christiane (1523) Juan Luis Vives compares a "woman's painted face" to a wooden tablet (10-11). The affinities between the two arts, or rather practices, may also be noticeable in what is sometimes recognized as Barbara Sirani's portrait of her sister, the famous Bolognese artist Elisabetta (1665). According to Phillippy, the picture features a "painting woman" who is applying the same colors, or ingredients, with which she has apparently made up her face, on a canvas (31). Barbara Sirani's representation thus defines the creatrice as an extraordinary person who controls both her artistic and feminine identity.
One of Phillippy's self-professed purposes in writing Painting Women: Cosmetics, Canvases and Early Modern Culture is to demonstrate "how the dynamics of the cosmetic debate illuminate women artists' self-representations" (17). In order to do so, she reintroduces and analyzes diverse texts and images which have been authored by women (but more often by men) who plied their trades, so to speak, in Italy, France, and England. Phillippy's book includes interpretations and reinterpretations of Lavinia Fontana's self-portrait (1577), on the one hand, and of Marguerite de Navarre's Le Miroir de Jhesus Christe crucifie (1550s), on the other. It reexamines Nicholas Hilliard's portraits of Elizabeth I, which exemplify, as Phillippy states, the queen's "self-definitions through the creative mastery of surfaces" (143). Among the other female voices which the author explores are those of Artemisia Gentileschi, Aemilia Lanyer, and Elizabeth Cary, to name only a few. Her reading of the relationships between Artemisia and Tuzia, Judith and Abra, and Shakespeare's Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella is especially enlightening (in particular to an art historian like me). So is her take on a woodcut depicting Elizabeth I kneeling before Christ (1548), a title page of one of Jean Liebault's works in which the Samaritan woman is shown genuflexing before Christ (1582), and Fontana's variation on the very same scene (1607).
At the same time, such comparisons as those between Shakespeare's "Rape of Lucrece" and Sirani's Portia Wounding Her Thigh (1664) (instead of with Artemisia's Lucretia [ca. 1621]), for instance, are as surprising as they are unconventional: they seem to reflect Phillippy's avowed promise to "delineate a . . . conversation of gender, performed by different voices in different tongues and registers" (19). Similarly, reviewing Fontana's aforementioned self-portrait without comparing it to or mentioning those by Caterina van Hemmessen (1546) and Judith Leyster (ca. 1630) — which may or may not prove the author's ideas — may be the product of a methodology which apparently allows her to challenge what she believes is the prevailing "antiquated, laudatory approach to the period" (18).
Although Phillippy contends that "moving freely . . . from Italy to France to England" is not as arbitrary as it seems, one may wonder why she has chosen to leave Spain and Holland, among other European countries, out (18). The justification for such choices is that they enable her to "augment views of early modern [End Page 1260] subjectivity resulting from highly specific approaches to literary, artistic, and cultural texts" (19).
Whether one accepts or rejects the directions that Phillippy has chosen to follow, one will undoubtedly be enriched by many of the previously obscured glimpses that she has succeeded in unveiling. To be sure, whether one agrees with or objects to her way of seeing, one marvels at her multidisciplinary investigation, which...