Thin eyebrows are back, Brazilian butt lifts are out, and people are lining up to get their lip injections dissolved after years of the procedure trending — who can keep up with the beauty standards that change at the drop of a hat? Apparently, they’re inescapable even after death, as revealed by the restoration of a 17th-century portrait of an English Countess whose face was revised with larger lips long after the original work had been completed.
Part of the Suffolk collection, the full-body portrait of Countess Diana Cecil of Oxford has undergone conservation and will be displayed at the Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, this coming Thursday, November 30. While carefully stripping away the aged yellow varnish, collections conservator Alice Tate-Harte discovered that Diana’s portrait had been reworked. The Countess’s stoic expression was replaced with fuller, rosier lips that smiled slightly, and her hairline was brought down to make her forehead appear smaller.
“Under the microscope, it was possible to see that the later paint flowed into the cracks of the original paint — showing that the paint had been applied after the original paint had cracked some 100 years after completion,” Tate-Harte told Hyperallergic. “The later paint was also more soluble.”
Through the exposure of Dutch-English painter Cornelius Johnson’s dated signature, the restoration also revealed that the painting was completed in 1634 and not 1638 as previously believed.
In a statement provided by English Heritage, the charity organization that manages the Kenwood House and hundreds of other historic sites across England, Tate-Harte alleged that the revisions to Diana’s portrait could have been attempts to cover up the damaged surface after the painting had been rolled up, but noted that the unidentified restorer took liberties to “sweeten” her appearance.
“I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world,” the conservator stated. This instance of analog Facetuning, which likely occurred long after Diana’s death in 1654, raised both eyebrows and questions about the evolving beauty standards applied to women during history as well as today.
Kenwood’s collections curator Louise Cooling told Hyperallergic that while the plumped lips are informed by the shifts in beauty standards between the 17th century and the late 19th to early 20th centuries, “the gentle smile speaks to the changing way that women were viewed and expected to behave.”
“By the time the restorer revised the painting, there were firmly established ideas about what constituted ideal femininity,” Cooling continued. “The smile softens Diana’s face, suggesting a sweeter, more demure women than the more characterful, more serious face of the original portrait.”
Cooling also expanded on the revision of Diana’s hairline, explaining that the high forehead look popularized by Queen Elizabeth I was regarded as beautiful during the 16th and 17th centuries, but the Victorians associated women’s hair with “youthfulness and natural beauty,” so lowering Diana’s hairline is “a reflection of these changing beauty ideals.”
Like many who have gone under the knife or needle and are now seeking procedure reversals, Diana, who was considered a natural beauty in her time, has since had her fillers “dissolved” and her hairline replaced to its original height with Tate-Harte’s precision. The presentation of the Countess’s authentic face turns the mirror back on history’s absurd standards for women’s attractiveness and perceived femininity.