If you looked to famous paintings to tell you what women were like in the past, you’d conclude a few things: they were all white, and most of the time were probably pretty cold. Gazing into the middle distance while lazing around in the nude is sure to make you chilly, but I guess if you’ve got as many extra vertebrae as Ms. Odalisque then you’re not going to be getting up and grabbing yourself a hoodie any time soon.
By and large, Ladies in Paintings also had great skin, but in reality that probably wasn’t the case. While beauty ideals evolved throughout history, it was generally accepted that the epitome of beauty was being “the fairest of them all” (read: the whitest). This involved topical applications of lead and mercury, among other things. And upper class aside, the majority of women were out in the fields or stirring a tub of lye, where their skin was the least of their worries. You can see the results of this environment in some paintings, too.
Madame de Pompadour
Madame de Pompadour was the official mistress of French King Louis XV from 1745 until her death in 1764. Bizarre as it sounds, the title of official mistress was most desirable in the French court, with responsibilities like playing cards with the King (letting him win, no doubt) and throwing dinner parties, as well as being mates with his wife (the Queen) and coordinating ‘lesser’ mistresses. She also provided carnal services to old Lou.
In lieu of Snapchat, paintings were the only way for King Louis to remember Mme de Pompadour’s beauty while she was away from him. Her cheeks are almost always painted flooded with a rosy flush – a Rococo wink to her lover, or a permanent case of rosacea?
I’ll openly admit right now that I’m guessing it’s rosacea from the common theme of redness spotted in a cursory glance across Pompadour’s portraits: there’s no historical evidence to suggest that she did suffer from rosacea. The flush in her cheeks develops as she ages, however, as rosacea can when untreated. It’s at its most advanced in the memorial portrait painted after her death, and surely King Louis wasn’t getting his jollies from that one.
Vermeer’s milkmaid comes from a very different walk of life to Madame de Pompadour. She’s a hard-working servant of the seventeenth century, and it shows in her face. The window illuminates the redness on her cheeks and across her nose.
Despite the painting’s misleading title, this maid is more of the inside kind, the pours-the-milk-and-sweeps-the-house kind rather than the procures-the-milk-and-sweeps-the-barn kind. Her job would have kept her indoors more than a traditional milkmaid, but domestic tasks like hanging laundry to dry and visiting the market would have still ensured she saw plenty of sun. I’m prepared to guess that the pigmentation and scarring across her cheeks is a result of long-term sun exposure on top of a non-existent skincare routine.
You probably know Suzon better as the barmaid at A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. She is one of many dour young women favoured by early Impressionist painters to depict melancholy in the nineteenth century urban French cafe scene – see also Degas’ L’Absinthe or Manet’s The Plum – although if you simplify it down to ‘bummed-out-looking young lady in a cafe’ you might as well be looking at a portrait of me a lot of the time.
Suzon’s showing a bit of blotchy flush, but at least she’s got more colour than her aforementioned counterparts, who are looking peaky at best. She’s shown working behind the bar but the bowl of oranges in the painting are signifying that she’s a prostitute – apparently ‘citrus fruit’ is art history code for ‘lady of the night’.
Taking that into account, she might be working that rosy cheek as another sexy coded hint, or she might be exhibiting an alcohol flush reaction. This happens when acetylaldehyde, which is produced when your body metabolises alcohol, accumulates and isn’t processed by your body fast enough.
Considering she’s working behind the bar this night, Suzon may not have been drinking enough to cause that reaction, but may be exhibiting a different alcohol-related skin reaction called telangiectasia. Often these are called broken capillaries, but what you see isn’t actually broken blood vessels; instead, they’re just permanently widened and visible close to the surface of the skin. This condition is gradual and may be caused by alcoholism. Given the lifestyle of working girls in urban French society wasn’t the most positive or liberating, and the pattern of women like Suzon being depicted drinking despondently in cafes, telangiectasia is the most logical explanation for her reddened cheeks.