The Pressures of Beauty

Posted by by Janet Dooley on 4 January 2012 in category in Elizabeth I - 0 0 Comments

The pressures of beauty!

We think we got it bad when it comes to societal pressures of beauty. The 16th century was no different. As pointed out in this article by Jonathan Jones, first featured in The Guardian, extreme lengths were taken by noble renaissance women to make sure they looked good in their official portraits. They paid the artists…and portrait artists operated under a strict code of professional courtesy when portraying their wealthy patrons. 

One, however, escaped the censors.

Much has been written about Elizabeth I’s adversion to growing old. How she banned mirrors from her palaces as she aged. How she courted—and demanded courtly love—from her many admirers…(and by admirers we mean people who needed money from her)…no matter how young they were. 

As it turns out, Elizabeth wasn’t unusually vain. An aversion to aging was common among noble women of the 16th century, and as this article points out, perhaps England…with its artistic tradition in realism…was ahead of the curve in representing people as they actually were.

The article points out that in the tradition of Hans Holbein, English artists “fudged” on the issue of age by using the 16th century equivalent of a “soft focus” –-smoothing lines, using white makeup, and adding adorning jewels to make their monarch look better, if not necessarily younger. 

Here is the famous Armada portrait (George Gower, National Portrait Gallery), completed in 1588, when Elizabeth was 55 years of age. 

The portrait shown in this article, completed in 1595, when Elizabeth was 62 years of age, shows a much different Queen. One we can all relate to…but one definitely ravaged by time.


Not surprisingly, the Marcus Gheeraerts portrait shown in this article, was hidden, and eventually lost, in the artist’s studio. The artist created a realistic portrait, but he wasn’t dumb enough to show it to his queen. Thankfully, the portrait resurfaced, and we, and less judgmental modern audience, can see Elizabeth for who she was. Queen, legend and human.

To read the entire article by Jonathan Jones, click here.



Make a Comment

Your Name:
Your E-Mail:
Your Comment: