Ever wake up with a pimple in the middle of your forehead and wish that you could just make it go away? In the eighteenth century, Lima's citizens had a solution that would not only hide the pimple, but that was simultaneously stylish and sexy! Faux beauty marks made of black velvet or taffeta covered in gum arabic were the height of fashion. An ample example can be seen in the portrait of the wealthy, American-born Spaniard, Doña María Rosa de Ribera Mendoza y Ramos Galbán, which is currently on view in Galleries 212 and 212A in the Art Institute's exhibition, A Voyage to South America: Andean Art in the Spanish Empire. And they covered more than just pimples. Large beauty marks could easily cover smallpox scars as well as unseemly sores caused by syphilis. Their beauty came not only from their ability to obscure defects, but also from the striking contrast of the dark taffeta on the porcelain-white skin that was the ideal for elite women at this time. They positively screamed to the viewer “the sun never touches this face!”
The passion for beauty marks came to South America, like so many high-fashion trends, from that center of extravagance and style, France, where they first appeared in the sixteenth century. French ladies, in fact, might wear many beauty marks, cut not only into modest circles like the one on Doña María's temple, but also into stars, suns, moons, even trees, horses, cupids, and doves. Satirical eighteenth-century prints show women with faces spotted by numerous beauty marks. By the eighteenth century in Europe, beauty marks had acquired a symbolic language all their own. In a satirical essay published in 1764, Luis de Velasco, Marques of Valdeflores, described Spanish ladies expertly employing beauty marks as tools of flirtation. The patches not only acquired symbolic meaning depending on where they were worn, but a true flirt might carry a box of beauty marks with her so as to be able to adjust her message depending on her audience. If we were to interpret Doña María's mark based on Valdeflores's description, we would find that “placed on the right temple [a beauty mark] implies that she is prepared to break [with her current lover] and find a new one.” Alternately, contemporary French writers tell us that placement near the temple might convey passion, while near the lips was coquettish, in the middle of the forehead was majestic, at the center of the cheek indicated gallantry, and near the nose was risqué.
It is likely that at least some of this significance traveled across the ocean to South American along with the black beauty marks themselves, although it is hard to imagine that Doña María sat down to be painted by one of Lima's most renowned portrait painters while wearing a beauty mark that told the world she was looking to drop her current lover and take up a new one! Beauty marks were popular in Mexico as well, where they were known as chiqueadores and function today as headache remedies. The Brooklyn Museum collection houses two portraits of a distinguished Mexican lady, as a toddler ca. 1735 and then again as a young woman in 1760. As a toddler she wears one modest beauty mark, but by the time she was an adult she was wearing 5!
But perhaps the trend will return? Guests of both genders at the opening of the Voyage to South America exhibition enjoyed wearing their own chiqueadores, as instructed by a costumed 18th-century guide.
The Art Institute also offers temporary tattoos inspired by James Ensor's Temptation of Saint Anthony to visitors who come to see our current exhibition, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor, proving that the museum may just be at the forefront of a new fashion in body art!
—Emily Floyd, recent Prints and Drawings intern and Tulane University Ph.D student
Pedro José Díaz (Active in Peru 1770–1810), Doña María Rosa de Rivera, Countess of the Vega del Ren, 1780s, oil on canvas. Carl and Marilynn Thoma Collection.
Miguel Cabrera (Mexican, 1695–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1760, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Attributed to Nicolás Enríquez (Mexican, active 1730–1768), Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes, about 1735, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum of Art.