Max Beerbohm’s “The Pervasion of Rouge” takes on the rapidly spreading use of makeup at the close of the nineteenth century, examining the desires of men and women alike to cover their true faces with layers of falsity. In this essay, he ironically defends the use of an excess of makeup, lauding the fact that women can now paint over the emotions on their faces. Beerbohm sardonically argues that while the art of the past must someday perish, makeup ensures that the contemporary face can last longer than ever. He wryly states that the beauty preserved by makeup is worth as much as ancient stained glass and important aged manuscripts. “The painting of the face is the first painting men can have known,” Beerbohm contends; it is, in fact, “art’s very basis”. By praising, on the surface, the actions of these modern-day facial artists, Beerbohm scathingly takes the appeal out of concealer. His seemingly unending and excessive praise for the creation of falsehoods gains intensified effect when paired with ideas that no one would be in favor of, such as the loss of soul and feeling.

And, truly, of all the good things that will happen with the full revival of cosmetics, one of the best is that surface will finally be severed from soul. That damnable confusion will be solved by the extinguishing of a prejudice which, as I suggest, itself created. Too long has the face been degraded from its rank as a thing of beauty to a mere vulgar index of character or emotion. We had come to troubling ourselves, not with its charm of colour and line, but with such questions as whether the lips were sensuous, the eyes full of sadness, the nose indicative of determination. I have no quarrel with physiognomy. For my own part I believe in it. But it has tended to degrade the face aesthetically, in such wise as the study of cheirosophy [study of hands B.] has tended to degrade the hand. And the use of cosmetics, the masking of the face, will change this. We shall gaze at a woman merely because she is beautiful, not stare into her face anxiously, as into the face of a barometer.

Beerbohm later transitions from speaking in general ironic parables to citing specific instances where successful women have risen to prominence without showing personality. He makes an example out of Scottish actress Cissie Loftus, who Beerbohm claims became accepted due to her nonthreatening lack of emotion

But, with her grave insouciance, Miss Cissie Loftus had much of the reserve that is one of the factors of feminine perfection, and to most comes only, as I have said, with artifice. Her features played very, very slightly. And in truth, this may have been one of the reasons of her great success. For expression is but too often the ruin of a face; and, since we cannot, as yet, so order the circumstances of life that women shall never be betrayed into "an unbecoming emotion," when the brunette shall never have cause to blush nor La Gioconda to frown, the safest way by far is to create, by brush and pigments, artificial expression for every face.

In painting a snark-filled picture of an “ideal” world where human emotion is discarded, and replaced with a constantly beautiful facade, Max Beerbohm elicits a feeling of uneasiness. His constant praise of things like “severing” the surface from the soul creates the desired association between makeup and excessively unpleasant beautification. The effectiveness of the piece comes from the degree to which Beerbohm seemingly approves of makeup; not only is beautifying yourself acceptable, he contends, but so is displaying a crippling lack of emotion. In this newfound world, he states, women are meant to be seen, and aren’t meant to show their feelings. Beerbohm’s unsolicited defense of purely superficial beauty displays one extreme of the debate over makeup, and allows the reader to question their devotion to something that could leave the faces of the world devoid of character.

Questions

1. How are Beerbohm’s statements about renovating the art of old reminiscent of Ruskin’s “The Lamp of Memory”? Would these two authors share the same opinion of cosmetics?

2. Beerbohm seems to contend that the general public he was writing for belittled women, in that they preferred women to look pretty and display a lack of emotion. How does Beerbohm’s ironic association with this opinion work to separate him from these sexist masses?

3. Beerbohm uses this essay to combat the spreading falsity of excessive makeup, and yet he uses falsity to make his point, in that he advocates an opinion he doesn’t actively believe in. Why doesn’t the falsity embedded within the narrative itself affect Beerbohm’s credibility?

4. How does Beerbohm effectively represent both sides of the argument over makeup, while only “advocating” for one opinion?


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Last modified 7 March 2011