From Painted Jezebels to Synthetic Beauty: The Story of Eye Make-Up

This exhibition ran from 30 June 2008 until 9 April 2009. It showed how cosmetic products for the eyes can alter the colour of the surrounding flesh or lashes and create an illusion of shape or form...

Share options

Close up image of female eye make-up

If you had ever wondered how the ancient Egyptians gave their eyes such a distinctive appearance or if you had never heard of the mascara that blinded the women who used it in the 1930s, this temporary exhibition at the British Optical Association Museum would have opened your eyes, so-to-speak.
From Painted Jezebels…to Synthetic Beauty: The Story of Eye Make-Up explained how cosmetic products for the eyes can alter the colour of the surrounding flesh or lashes and create an illusion of shape or form. It told the story of how women, and less frequently men, have used them for ceremonial, social or psychological reasons.
The exhibition, located in the College Reception area, was the first in a new programme of small temporary exhibitions, each contained within a single display case, in which the museum aims to give a condensed and accessible introduction to specific eye topics.
This particular exhibition also complemented the 2007 College press campaign on the dangers of using make-up that has passed its use-by date, an activity that carries with it a serious risk of eye infection. The College has since acquired additional products relating to eye cosmetics in the later 20th century.

Did You Know? Scientists working at the Louvre Museum in Paris have concluded that Cleopatra's heavy eye make-up may have had medical benefits. The lead salts in the make-up produced nitric oxide that would have had an immunity boosting effect, helping the body to fight off bacteria that might lead to eye infections. Because these lead compounds took months to prepare it has even been suggested that the anti-infection benefit was the principal reason behind the darkening of the area around the eyes. The full study has been described in the Journal of Analytical Chemistry.

As for the exhibition title, that stems from the fact that for centuries painting yourself was frowned upon, due to the association of this activity with one bad example from circa 840 BC...

When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it; and she painted her eyes, and adorned her head, and looked out of the window

                  The Old Testament: 2 Kings 9:30

In the 1957 film Funny Face Audrey Hepburn’s character starts off by criticising the pursuit of ‘synthetic beauty’, whether artistically or chemically induced, but by the end she had adopted the famous doe-eye look, compared by many to Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. It seems we really haven’t come so far in three millennia.

Some of what we learned from mounting the exhibition has informed our museum web page on the Appearance of the eye