A brief history of women’s eyebrows in art

Being a public figure on the Internet means that my face is watched almost constantly by strangers, which leads to uninvited comments about one feature: my eyebrows. At TikTok, the more viral my video is, the more “feedback” my Ashkenazi eyebrows get, thicker than average. Reactions range from applause to truly unexpected amounts of anger and disgust.

I began to wonder: Have people always been so weird about eyebrows? As the most easily variable facial feature, women’s eyebrows have often been places of intense control and have gone through seemingly endless, rapidly changing cycles of trends around the world. So let’s take a quick tour of how these ideals have manifested themselves in art in different civilizations throughout history: from violent, to brave, to completely naked.

Ancient Egypt

Regardless of gender, many people in ancient Egypt took special care to strengthen their eyebrows with a stake or mesdemet. Like other North African and Asian cultures, the face was considered sacred and therefore required protection: stake and mesdemet serve to prevent eye infections. Kohl is still used by many around the eyes, both for decoration and for spiritual protection or devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows, combined with the traditions of carved reliefs, led to strongly defined, expressive arches in many ancient Egyptian portraits. This wooden inner coffin of the singer for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic: her vivid hair ornaments look almost like a continuation of her intense look.

The singer’s inner coffin for Amon-Re, Henetauika (c. 1000-945 BC) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Knock terracotta

From 1500 BC to about 500 AD, a culture in Knock, Nigeria, left behind now famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Browning and James Ameje observed Nigerian craftsman Audu Washi showing them how to make these terracotta elements using traditional methods. A sharpened, sanded piece of wood is gently pushed into the clay to create fine detail, including very sharp, graphic eyebrows. The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar in the portraits, but the subtle changes in shape and space between them cause extremely different personalities.

Terracotta head (ca. 550-50 BC), 12 x 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient Greece and Rome

Although it is difficult to imagine today’s inaccurate images of virgin white sculptures, many women in ancient Greece and Rome were also fans of monsters! In some settings, an hairy eyebrow was not only considered beautiful, but was seen as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sharow Encyclopedia of hair tells how ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made from goat hair glued to the forehead to achieve this look. A mural by Terence Neo and his (unfortunately anonymous) wife is a unique find in Pompeii because they are shown to have equal status. Many may have envied her pair of protruding eyebrows – or indeed, just one.

Unknown artist, “Portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife” (c. 75 AD), mural found in Pompeii (image via Wikimedia Commons)

China, Tang Dynasty

Fast-moving trends are not unique to the Internet culture of the 21st century. Women of the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907 AD) painted their eyebrows in dozens of different styles, long, short, thick, thin and wavy, depending on the style this year. Wealthy women would use Qingdai, bluish pigment made from indigo. The woman in the portrait below has a painted face with additional decoration on her forehead – huadian,, or plum makeup. IN 5000 years of Chinese costumeXun Zhou writes that women would even decorate their eyebrows with luminous materials such as “gold, silver and an emerald feather.”

Unknown artist, portrait of a woman (circa 7th century – 10th century AD), found in Astana Cemetery in Xinjiang, China (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Medieval Western Europe

Women in late medieval art show a very distinct hairstyle; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that “misogynistic scientific writing has made women’s body hair a mental and physical danger to men.” So when it came to eyebrows, some women plucked them while they were almost gone. This plucking is extended to thinning hair lines to reveal large bald foreheads. A 1449 painting by Petrus Christos, A Goldsmith in His Shop, shows a rich woman adorned with lavish cloth. She may even have used harsh chemicals to get rid of ugly hair, which could often lead to burnt and cracked skin. But that’s just the risk you take for beauty … isn’t it?

Peter Christos, The Goldsmith in His Workshop (1449), oil on board, 39.61 x 33.77 inches (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heian era of Japan

Eyebrow fashion had a particularly unique moment in the Heian period in Japan (794–1185 AD), when, in a manner similar to Chinese trends, both men and women plucked their eyebrow hair completely, drawing new ones in inches. above the natural line of the eyebrows. . One of these styles was known as hikimayu (引 眉), in which both thumbs are dipped in black make-up pigment and then used to create mirror prints far up the forehead. This print actually came many centuries later in 1876 and is part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling series of stamps entitled Thirty-six good and bad beauties, which are portraits of “good and evil” women throughout Japanese history. And just as times change in their prints, so do their eyebrows.

Toyohara Kunichika, “Thirty-Six Good and Evil Beauties: Nurse Asaoka” (1876), engraving, 14.17 x 9.44 inches (image provided by Toshidama Gallery)

Iran, Qajar dynasty

At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), men’s and women’s ideals of beauty became closer and closer, as did the eyebrows! Although eyebrows may have been mocked in Western Europe, scientist Afsane Najmabadi showed that women would darken their eyebrows and even adorn their upper lips with mascara to show a weak mustache. Men often acquire stereotypically feminine features, sometimes looking beardless with a thin waist in paintings. In portraits of couples, clothing is sometimes the biggest difference between two figures of different sexes.

Stereotypes of Jewish women France from 1800

In the mid-1800s in France, the large, dark eyebrows of some women were read not as markers of courage, but of Judaism through an anti-Semitic and misogynistic trope known as “La Belle Juive.” After visiting the studio of the French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, L. de Geoffroy described a portrait of 1848. Baroness de Rothschild as “the most seductive blend of brilliant fabrics”, dotted with “jewelry of a thousand colors … two big eyebrows oriental style are outlined on her forehead. “French artists and writers include Jewish women in their fantastic descriptions of women’s highly ornamented” harems. “But while eyebrows do not in fact they look too distinct in the Baron’s portrait (perhaps Monsieur Geoffroy was simply fascinated by the Oriental stereotype!), they are much more pronounced in one of Ingres’s more frankly Orientalist paintings, such as “Tête de juive” (1866).

Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Portrait of Baron de Rothschild” (1848), oil painting, 55.86 x 39.76 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Jewish Head” (c. 19th century), oil on linen and canvas laid on a panel, 8.85 x 6.61 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Victorian era

In the Victorian era of British history, every detail of a woman’s appearance went under a magnifying glass, and some believed that the shape of the eyebrow contained evidence of the woman’s inner character.

Books and beauty manuals outline the perfect eyebrow with almost maniacal details, many of which were assembled by writer Mimi Matthews. Sylvia’s Toilet Book: A Lady’s Guide to Dressing and Beauty from 1881 states that the ideal “arched eyebrows convey only the idea of ​​childlike innocence and amazement.” But above all, eyebrows should never, sometime Meeting. A certain Dr. Thomas Sozinski (yes, “Dr.”) helpfully states in the book that the greater the space between the eyebrows, “the greater the mind,” but also that too much “the space and bag between the eyebrows and the eyes are ugly and are usually found in shallow people with depraved tastes.” A certain Dr. Thomas Sozinski (yes, “Dr.”) helpfully states in the book that the greater the space between the eyebrows, “the greater the mind,” but also that “too much space and bags between the eyebrows and eyes are ugly and are usually found in shallow people with depraved tastes. “He may have drawn from phrenology, a pseudoscience that suggests that the shape of the head is indicative of intelligence – a popular subject in early Victorian Britain. TM Parsinen pointed to the age-old dubious belief that having a large, prominent eyebrow was a sure sign of brain power. What to do a Victorian beauty?

Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandis, “Mary Magdalene” (1860), oil on panel, 13.22 x 10.98 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Frieda Kahlo

What kind of “history of eyebrows” article would this be if we didn’t mention Frieda? Eyebrows were her crown of glory and played a significant role in consolidating her place in the history of transgressive feminist art. Georgia Simmons writes that “the shock of the dark hair on her forehead is a statement that rejects stereotypes about what is and is not attractive.” However, as a member of the higher-class mestizo culture in Mexico, she has been criticized for appropriating and homogenizing various local aesthetics. Kahlo used an eyebrow pencil as a tool to proclaim her partial indigenous heritage, but had more freedom to experiment as a wealthy woman who was also of Spanish and German descent. Joanna Garcia Sheran writes for Hyperallergic that “the nationalism that Kahlo promotes in both art and personal style perpetuates the construction of a mythologized Indianism at the expense of the indigenous population.”

Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with a Little Monkey” (1945), oil on board, 16.33 x 22.04 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Robots from today’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, or rather “Kismet”

Did we keep the best for last? Kismet, created by Dr. Cynthia Briziel in 2000, is a machine that can communicate human facial expressions. His eyebrows, resembling a cross between Cheetos and hairy caterpillars, play a crucial role in this task. In an article about AtlanticEnglish Taylor noted that zoologist Desmond Morris argues that the main function of eyebrows is their central role in nonverbal cues played through complex dances. MIT research shows that eyebrows are just as important as the eyes when it comes to facial recognition, if not more so. Kismet, the bold portrait of the human face, was unveiled at an exhibition at the Barbican in 2016, entitled AI: More than a man. Of course, the descendants of Kismet in the latest models may be more “realistic”, but they lack the characteristic charm of swaying ears, buggy eyes of Furby and, of course, levitating eyebrows.

Dr. Cynthia Briziel, “Kismet” (circa 1990s), four Motorola 68332s, nine 400 MHz computers and another 500 MHz computer, in addition to other equipment (image via Wikimedia Commons)

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