- Early Modern Home Décor, Parties, and Makeup
At first glance, the subjects taken up in several new books on early modern Europe seem to announce a slide toward the banal in women’s studies. McIver “looks at women as collectors of precious material goods, as organizers of the early modern home, and as decorators of its interior” (dust jacket). Harness studies the involvement of Medici women in organizing musical festivities in early-seventeenth-century Florence. Gordon imagines the voices of women whose singing titillated Italian audiences circa 1600. And Phillippy considers—among other things—“women who paint themselves with cosmetics” (dust jacket). Home décor? Parties? Makeup? Obviously I jest. But to make the joke is important, for it suggests the breath of fresh air these books bring to the history of women in early modern Europe.
Of course, my title also parodies the risk of studying ephemera. To write a book that puts painting in dialogue with cosmetics hazards frivolity. But carefully argued, looking deep into the rouge pot can cast oil paintings in an entirely new light. It takes courage, wit, and imagination [End Page 185] to bring something truly new to the question of gender and sexuality in this amply studied period, and among the books under review here, those that succeed do so most dramatically in the measure that they dare to research matters formerly considered too trivial or transitory to be worthy of study. By circumventing narratives of “masterworks” (and the “masters” who made them), these cultural histories break new ground for feminist histories as well. Moving away from traditional concepts of artworks and their meanings, they circle outward from the oil-on-canvas to the mercury sublimate women applied to their faces, from architecture to furniture and decoration, and from written musical scores to the women’s voices that gave them life. Still in dialogue with the works traditionally revered by their respective disciplines, these books nonetheless reframe their fields by insisting on ephemera as constructive of culture.
In Painting Women, Patricia Phillippy uses the practice of “painting” as a lens through which to discover the cultural construction of femininity in the early modern period. Beginning with a comparative study of art and cosmetics, she shows how the Aristotelian duality between form and matter inflected discussions of surface, color, and representation with gendered terms. Just as form was construed as an ideal, masculine entity to be “fleshed out” with feminine matter, so, too, the structural properties of design (disegno) gendered it masculine, while the decorative application of color (colore) was gendered feminine (16). It is not difficult to imagine how this duality was expressed in contemporary assessments of the work of women artists. Whereas men were praised for their genius and ability to surpass the mere imitation of nature in their paintings, such women as Sofonisba Anguissola and Elisabetta Sirani were lauded for their diligent replication of matter. Critical attention focused particularly on their ability as portraitists—like the women who made up their faces with cosmetics, women artists properly busied themselves painting the faces of painted women. The mutual implication of the two sorts of face painting was only strengthened by the fact that apothecaries fabricated cosmetics to whiten the skin from ceruse (white lead mixed with vinegar) and red dyes for the cheeks and lips from fucus (red crystalline...