beauty spots

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beauty spots — not to be confused with birthmarks or freckles — are associated with a dark spot, usually on the face. Historically they have been seen as a mark of beauty, highlighting and identifying an area on the face such as on the cheek-brow, near to the mouth, or near the chin. The placing, either naturally or artificially, of the beauty spot, is thought to enhance the natural features of the person, making them more attractive, more sexually wanton and, therefore, more beautiful.

The history of fashion and the wearing of make-up runs parallel to the evolution of the beauty spot. Originally the beauty spot was artificially worn in the guise of patches and paint. Ovid's manual for lovers, the Ars Amatoria, reassured Roman women that: ‘No woman need be ugly, for all the remedies can be found in pots and potions.’ Whilst freckles were got rid of by scrubbing the skin with mercury, delicate kohl-pencilled beauty spots and other small designs, known as ‘patches’ were worn on the face, neck, and shoulders. The fashionable Roman woman also pencilled in her eyebrows and wore a patch or two on her cheek or neck, and sometimes on her bare shoulder or arm. The Roman men, like those later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were also not adverse to the wearing of ‘beauty spots’ in the form of elaborate patches.

The face patch or beauty spot had two distinct advantages: it enhanced facial features and it concealed battle scars, disfigurement from small pox, and poor complexion. Patches were often made of black taffeta or red Spanish leather and were increasingly worn in larger sizes, in a variety of designs. There developed a ‘language of patches’, whereby those politically-minded would wear their patch on either side of the cheek depending on political alliance.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the renowned painter, engraver, and satirist, William Hogarth, was creating a furore with his expositions on portraiture and caricature. At the time, essayist William Hazlitt claimed that Hogarth took his painted portraits to the verge of caricature, but never went beyond it. This has been a long-standing debate within the realms of art history: namely, to what extent are Hogarth's faces portraits or caricatures? As David Piper's The English Face (1992) reports on Hogarth's portraits:
[they] carry all the conviction of reality with them, as if we had seen the actual faces for the first time, from the precision, consistency, and good sense with which the whole and every part is made out. They exhibit the most uncommon features, with the most uncommon expressions, but which yet are as familiar and intelligible as possible, because with all the boldness, they have all the truth of nature … memorable faces, in their memorable moments. (p. 133)

It is in Hogarth's paintings and prints that we see the beauty spot in use. Though beauty spots and patches are not often found in the history or portrait paintings of the time, Hogarth's use of caricature lends itself to the exaggerated, microscopic view of the face. Thus Hogarth describes in detail, in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), the lines and shapes that make a face: ‘It is strange that nature hath afforded us so many lines and shapes to indicate the deficiencies and blemishes of the mind, while there are none at all that point out the perfections of it beyond the appearance of common sense and placidity’. An engraving by Hogarth entitled Morning (1738), reveals a woman walking to church, holding a fan, with a number of dark spots on her forehead and upper cheek. These are strategically placed for maximum effect, to highlight the physiognomy of the woman.

By the nineteenth century two of the most famous caricaturists, James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, chose satire as their form of visual communication, most notably in the tradition of an Italian caricature known as Ghezzi. By emphasizing the physical eccentricities of their subject, they ridicule and shock. Gillray's etching, Dido in Despair (1801), shows an elephantine-size female in a night-gown, with dark beauty spots satirically dotted around her face. This is an antithetical depiction of beauty that Gillary offers, reversing the notion of a flawless goddess, ridiculing society for its devotion to such superficial ideals.

By the mid nineteenth century the use of patches and the enhancing of facial beauty was in its decline, and it was not until the 1950s that the beauty spot was to reappear as an aesthetic feature. Post-war Europe and the US looked to beauty and the making of cinematic idols. Shaking off the drabness of the war years, femininity was back in fashion with Christian Dior's ‘new look’ tight-waisted dresses, new haircuts, high heels, and the wearing of red lipstick, emphasizing the pencilled-on beauty spot. Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe always wore a beauty spot, strategically placed next to her top lip.

Anne Abichou


Piper, D. (1992). The English Face. National Portrait Gallery, London.
Pomeroy, S. B. (1975). Goddesses, whores, wives, and slaves. Women in classical antiquity. Schoken Books, New York.
Rousseau, G. S. and Porter, R. (ed.) (1987). Sexual underworlds of the Enlightenment. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

See also beauty; fashion; freckles; make-up.

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