Beauty influencers of the Edo period

Young girl, wife, mother, courtesan, woman of the aristocracy, of the people or of the bourgeoisie… It is enough to observe the faces to guess their marital situation and social status. Position of the eyebrows, color of the lips and teeth, style of the hairstyle: in the Edo period (1603-1868), the feminine appearance was extremely codified, as illustrated by the elegant exhibition of prints presented at the Maison of Japanese culture in Paris. Far from being futile, it sheds light on the class system then in force. All the works shown come from the Pola Institute, a research establishment that collects objects and documents related to the art of make-up in Japan and the West, from Antiquity to the present day.

Over 150 prints (ukiyo-e) have been reunited, which will give way to as many others from December 3, the fragility of these works on paper not allowing them to be exposed to light for too long. All of them show women with often stereotypical faces, busy with their toilet, alone, with friends or servants. No erotic print (shunga) in this selection, a genre that was nevertheless widely developed in Japan during the Edo period and which had given rise to a beautiful exhibition, entitled “Mirror of desire”, in 2016 at the Guimet Museum of Asian Arts, in Paris. No nudity either, the women appearing at the jump of the tatami always adorned with sumptuous kimonos.

Read the review (in 2016): Erotic Japanese prints at the Guimet Museum in Paris

About fifty objects are also presented in a display cabinet, richly decorated combs and hairpins, porcelain make-up kit, still for making floral lotions, lip and cheek brushes, lacquer dressing tables with patterns enhanced with gold … The care taken in the manufacture of all these accessories attests to the importance attached by women to their beauty, an activity that could take several hours. A three-volume manual, dating from 1813, provides advice on how to apply eyebrow make-up, to make a pretty mouth or to highlight your hair according to the shape of your face. Republished several times, this beauty guide (ancestor of tutorials!) Was a bestseller, before its distribution was stopped by the earthquake that devastated Tokyo in 1923, destroying the original boards.

Beauty ideal

Rich in a thousand details, these prints lift the veil on a ritual that Japanese women engaged in daily in order to conform to the ideal of beauty of the time. Three shades are sufficient for makeup: white for the face, neck and décolleté, red for the lips and black for the eyebrows. Shaved every morning after having rubbed it with rice bran to be perfectly smooth, the face is coated with a mixture of water and white lead – sometimes mercury (we have not been concerned about the harmfulness of these cosmetics only from 1900). A print by Keisai Eisen (1790-1848) thus shows a young geisha applied to whiten her face using a brush brush. Another by Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) represents a woman checking, a mirror in each hand, the correct application of the make-up on the skin of her neck.

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