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Open Access Publications from the University of California

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

Published Web Location Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

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 were 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 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 will explore in this paper, the use of cosmetics in the early-modern era was associated not only with narcissism, but with England’s colonial efforts. By considering discourses regarding both her status as a symbol of natural beauty and the racist associations that were associated 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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