"Let us dance and be glad"! — Artifice and Incongruity in Beerbohm's "A Defence of Cosmetics"

Michelle Downing, Pre-Raphaalites, Aesthetes, and Decadents, Brown University, 2006

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In an essay ridiculed by many critics as quintessential decadence, Max Beerbohm's "A Defence of Cosmetics," brought him fame while still a young undergraduate at Oxford. While condoning something seemingly simple as make-up ("rouge") he compares it to artifice, a certainly fitting comparison; and then artifice to a queen, proclaiming in the opening line that "it is useless to protest" and the ones who are against it have quite a load to resist:

If there be any whose hearts chafe at her return, let them not say, "We have come into evil times and be all for resistance, reformation, or angry cavilling. For did the king's sceptre send the sea retrograde --, or the wand of the sorcerer avail to turn the sun from its old course?

It is in this manner that may have readers harking back to Swinburne; for as soon as Beerbohm declares her rule over the Victorian Era of simplicity as "old signs" that foreshadow a "new epoch of artifice," he welcomes her "return among us" in the last line of the essay, adding that "artifice, sweetest exile" has "come into her kingdom".

Although many Victorian readers overlooked his facetious position on the matter, Beerbohm's writing, like that of Swinburne, offered paradoxical takes on the artificiality of the age. Max first proposes feasible uses for the prominence of cosmetics, and compares the naked face to a canvas: "The painting of the face is the first kind of painting men can have known." And adding that "to deny that "making up" is an art, on the pretext that the finished work of its exponents depends for beauty and excellence upon the ground chosen for the work, is absurd."

While Beerbohm is profound in his arguments and manages to elicit vitality out of the artifice now seeping into the age of "simplicity," he then moves on to declare:

Artifice's first command to them is that they should repose. With bodily activity their powder will fly, their enamel crack . . . . . . For although behind the painted mask that Artifice bids them wear, they can "play without let," their faces do not "become lined with thought".

Statements like these, regardless of his stance on the use of cosmetics, did embrace the universal belief of women's gender roles (or lack there-of). In fact, the pervasion of rouge seems to be another reason to keep them bound to roles that will bind them long after the new age they find themselves in is over.


1 What is Beerbohm trying to accomplish by masking his intentions-as a champion of cosmetics, does he exemplify the decedent's use of hyperbolic juxtapositions by endorsing cosmetics? Even in satire, is he endorsing the use of it at all in some way?

2 According to Philip Thompson, "The most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque has been the fundamental element of disharmony". In what ways can this be applied to "A Defence of Cosmetics"?

3 If the mirror was "the reversal of the soul," then what would the relationship between artifice and nature be, according to Beerbohm?

4. Beerbohm, in a short expanse of a paragraph, simultaneously supports the use of rouge and paints yet implies the use limits — or perhaps discourages — women from mental or physical stimulation, lest "their powder will fly, their enamel crack". Does he eventually come to a conclusion and state his opinion on the matter? Does the mocking tone of the essay suggest otherwise?

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Last modified 1 December 2006