A brief history of women’s eyebrows in art

Being a public figure online means that my face is almost constantly being looked at by strangers, leading to uninvited comments about one feature in particular: my eyebrows. On TikTok, the more viral my video, the more “reactions” my larger-than-average Ashkenazi eyebrows get. Reactions range from applause to genuine amounts of anger and disgust.

I began to wonder: Have people always been this weird about eyebrows? As the most easily changeable facial feature, women’s eyebrows have often been the site of intense scrutiny and have gone through seemingly endless, rapidly changing trend cycles around the world. So let’s take a quick tour of how these ideals have appeared in art across civilizations throughout history: from the bushy, to the bold, to the completely bare.

ancient Egypt

Regardless of gender, many people in Ancient Egypt took special care to bold their eyebrows with kohl or mesdem. Like other North African and Asian cultures, the face was understood to be sacred, and therefore required protection: kohl and mesdem both served to protect against infections around the eyes. Kohl is used by many people to this day around the eyes, both for decoration and for protection or spiritual devotion. This preference for strong eyebrows combined with the traditions of carved reliefs resulted in very defined and expressive arches in many Ancient Egyptian portraits. This singer’s interior wooden casket for Amun-Re is a beautiful expression of this high-contrast aesthetic: Her vibrant hairdos almost seem like an extension of her intense look.

Inner coffin of singer for Amun-Re, Henettawyca (c. 1000–945 BC) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Terracotta No

From 1500 BCE to about 500 CE, a culture in Nok, Nigeria left behind now-famous terracotta sculptures with particularly detailed faces. Researchers Peter Breunig and James Ameje observed Nigerian master Audu Washi, who showed them how to make these terracotta features using traditional methods. A sharpened and sanded piece of wood is gently pressed into the clay to create fine details, including very distinct and graphic eyebrows. The arched outlines of the eyebrows in these sculptures are similar across the portraits, but the subtle changes in their shape and the space between them convey very 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

While it’s hard to imagine with today’s inaccurate images of pristine white sculptures, many women in Ancient Greece and Rome were also cheeky worshipers! In some circles, a hairy eyebrow was not only considered beautiful, but seen as a sign of wisdom. Victoria Sherrow’s The Encyclopedia of Hair shows how ancient Greek women used powdered antimony (also known as kohl) or even patches made of goat hair glued to their foreheads to achieve this look. A fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife (unfortunately anonymous) was a unique find in Pompeii because they are shown as having equal status. Many may have envied her prominent pair of eyebrows – or indeed, just one.

Artist unknown, “Portrait of Terentius Neo and his Wife” (c. 75 CE), fresco found in Pompeii (image via Wikimedia Commons)

China, Tang Dynasty

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

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

Medieval Western Europe

Women in late medieval art display a very distinctive hair style; that is, no hair at all! John Block Friedman writes that “misogynistic scientific writings had made female body hair a psychic and physical danger to men.” So when it came to eyebrows, some women plucked them until they were almost non-existent. This tweak extended to thinning hairlines to reveal large, bald foreheads. Petrus Christus’s 1449 painting “A Goldsmith in His Shop” shows a wealthy woman adorned in luxurious fabric. She may even have used harsh chemicals to help get rid of the unsightly hairs, which can often result in burned and blistered skin. But that’s just the risk you take for beauty… right?

Peter Christus, “A Goldsmith in His Workshop” (1449), oil on board, 39.61 x 33.77 inches (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Heian Era of Japan

Eyebrow fashion had a particularly unique moment in Japan’s Heian period (794–1185 CE), where, in a fashion similar to Chinese trends, both men and women would remove their eyebrow hairs completely, growing new ones an inch above the natural line of the eyebrows. . One of these styles was known as wise (引眉) in which both thumbs were dipped in black makeup pigment and then used to create reflective prints high up on the forehead. This print actually comes from many centuries later in 1876, and is part of Toyohara Kunichika’s dazzling series of prints titled Thirty-six good and bad beauties, which are portraits of “good and bad” women throughout Japanese history. And just as times change throughout the prints, so do their eyebrows.

Toyohara Kunichika, “Thirty-six Beauties Good and Bad: Nurse Asaoka” (1876), woodblock print, 14.17 x 9.44 inches (image courtesy Toshidama Gallery)

Iran, Qajar Dynasty

At the beginning of the Qajar dynasty in Persia (1785–1925), the ideals of male and female beauty became closer and closer, and so did the eyebrows! While unibrows may have been mocked in Western Europe, researcher Afsaneh Najmabadi has shown that women would darken their eyebrows and even decorate their upper lips with mascara to show off the faded moustache. Men often took on stereotypically feminine features, sometimes appearing beardless with slim waists in paintings. In portraits of couples, clothing was sometimes the biggest difference between two figures of different sexes.

Stereotypes of Jewish women, 1800s France

In mid-1800s France, the large, dark eyebrows of some women were read not as markers of a bold personality, but of Jewishness, through an anti-Semitic and misogynistic trope known as “La Belle Juive.” After visiting the studio of the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, L. de Geoffroy described an 1848 portrait of Baroness de Rothschild as “a very tempting mess of brilliant fabrics,” studded with “jewels of a thousand colors … two great eyebrows oriental style are depicted on her forehead.” French artists and writers included Jewish women in their fantastical depictions of highly decorated “harems” of women. But while the eyebrows do not Actually they look very distinct in the Baroness’s portrait (perhaps Monsieur Geoffroy just got carried away by the Orientalist stereotype!), they are much more pronounced in one of Ingres’s more overtly Orientalist paintings like “Tête de juive (Head of the Jewish Woman)” ( 1866). ).

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

Victorian era

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

Beauty books and manuals described the perfect brow in almost maniacal detail, many of which have been collected by writer Mimi Matthews. Sylvia’s Book Of The Toilet: A Ladies’ Guide To Dress And Beauty from 1881 says that the ideal “arched eyebrows convey only an idea of ​​innocence and childlike wonder.” But above all, the eyebrows should not ever meet A certain Dr. Thomas Sozinskey (yes, “Dr.”), helpfully says in the book that the greater the space between the eyebrows, “the greater the mind,” but also that “excessive space and stiffness between the eyebrows and the eyes are ugly, and are usually found in shallow persons of dissolute tastes.” He may have taken it from phrenology, a pseudoscience that it was assumed that the shape of the head was indicative of intelligence – a popular theme in early Victorian Britain. TM Parssinen has noted the dubious belief of the era that the possession of a large and prominent eyebrow was a sure sign of brain power. What’s a Victorian beauty to do?

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

Frida Kahlo

What kind of “eyebrow history” article would this be if we didn’t mention Frida? The eyebrow was her crowning glory and played no small role in cementing her place in transgressive feminist art history. Georgia Simmons writes that “shaking dark hair on her forehead is a statement that defies stereotypes about what is and isn’t attractive.” However, as a member of upper class Mestizo culture in Mexico, she has been criticized for appropriating and homogenizing diverse indigenous aesthetics. Kahlo used eyebrow pencil as a means of announcing her partly indigenous heritage, but she had more freedom to experiment as a wealthy woman who was also of Spanish and German descent. Joanna García Cherán wrote for Hyperallergic that the “nationalisms” that Kahlo promoted in both her art and her personal style perpetuate the construction of a mythologized Indian at the expense of indigenous people.

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

Robots from Present Day Cambridge, Massachusetts, or rather, “Kismet”

Did we save the best for last? “Kismet”, created by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal in 2000, is a machine that can communicate human facial expressions. Her eyebrows, resembling a cross between Cheetos and furry caterpillars, play a critical role in this task. In an article about The Atlantic, English Taylor noted how the zoologist Desmond Morris asserted that the primary function of the eyebrows is their central role in nonverbal signals, played out through intricate dances. MIT studies have shown that eyebrows are just as important as the eyes when it comes to recognizing a face, if not more so. Kismet, the bold portrait of the human face, featured in a 2016 Barbican exhibition entitled AI: More than Human. Of course, Kismet’s successors in recent models may be more “realistic”, but they lack the special charm of floppy ears, buggy Furby eyes and, of course, lively eyebrows.

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

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