‘abused contrary to nature’: 17th century eyebrows

There are some subjects which just transcend time and unite people across the ages. Eyebrows are one of those subjects. Should they be thin? Thick? Bushy? Drawn on? Tattooed? Well I guess that depends where you are, or when you are. I wasn’t planning on writing a post about eyebrows actually, but I just stumbled across Anthropometamorphosis: = man tralnsform’d: or, the artificiall changling (1653 2nd edition with illustrations) by John Bulwer on EEBO and loved it. The illustrations are amazingly bad/good and the whole idea that Bulwer felt the need to write this book in the first place amused me.

The text is split up into ‘the Scenes of Man’s Transformation’, each ‘scene’ looks at a different area of the body. It is an encyclopaedia of bodily modification, which appears to be partly historical and partly a critique of contemporary fashions. With a strong focus on the otherness of nations outside of Bulwer’s native England. I was amused by the ‘Beard haters’ section but by far my favourite has to be ‘Eye-brow Rites, or the Eye-brows abus’d contrary to Nature’ partly just for the use of ‘beetle-brows’ which seems to refer to the larger bushier style of brow. Or as Bulwer puts it brows which ‘perversely’ join.

‘Among some Nations, Beetle-brows are in fashion’ – Anthropometamorphosis: = man tralnsform’d: or, the artificiall changling

Also in the firing line were overly plucked eyebrows (see header image) Bulwer writes how ‘In the Indies’ some people took great pride in plucking their brows. The women of Nombre de Dios (in Panama) he tells, used certain herbs to make their eyebrows fall off. While he alleges that in Peru, eyebrow hair was removed and used as offering for the sun. Further on in the chapter Bulwer cites different methods for colouring brows such as soot, black ointment and a black powder created from minerals. Arabian women, he claims used a black paint to make their eyebrows look triangular while Turks fashion them into an arched shape. Bulwer, ever unimpressed,  states ‘to paint them in a Triangular forme, is a piece of Geometry, which we cannot allow to be exercised in the Eye-brows.’


Bulwer’s illustration of a Turkish woman with painted eyebrows.

He discusses Greek and Roman women and at times it is unclear whether he is talking about contemporary women from different countries, or how they behaved in the past. However towards the end of the chapter he includes a little anecdote that he was told at the time of printing, about a blonde haired woman dying her hair black. After being told she looked a little odd with black hair and fair eyebrows decided to dye them, with disastrous consequences:

‘and even now, when this sheet was going into the presse, an understanding and discreet Lady, falling into discourse of this vanity, told mee, shee knew a Gentlewoman, who being displeased with the native colour of the Haire of her Head which was yellow, procured a water of a Physitian about this Towne, to die her Haire Black. And being advertised of the incongruitie of the Haire of her Eye-brows which were white, with that new tincture of the Haire of her Head, shee applied this water to her Eye-brows to black them also, which soone fetcht off all the Haire, and thereby introduced a very ridiculous aspect, being, without all recovery, deprived of the Native Ornament of this part.’

‘A Hint of the Use of this Treatise’ gives us a clue as to Bulwer’s motivations for writing the piece. It seemed that he hoped to hold a mirror up to society and show their error in chasing after ‘vaine things’ and how, as he saw it, skewed their values were. To Bulwer and many of his contemporaries, any sort of physical embellishment was ‘contrary to nature’.

All this eyebrow talk got me thinking about what the ideal brow look was for the mid seventeenth century. Looking at portraits from around that time, the prevailing European style seemed to be for a fairly low key thin and rounded brow. As seen on the bust of Johanna Doré (1645-40) the portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine (1634) a portrait of an unknown woman (1648-50) and a portrait thought to be Mary, Princess of orange (1650s). They do all look remarkably similar in style and I wonder if they are the result of colouring or drawing on (perish the thought!).


Portrait Bust of Johanna Doré 1645-50
Portrait bus of Johanna Doré by François Dieussart (1645-50) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Close up of DYCK, Sir Anthony van Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, Attended by a Page 1634
Close up of  Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, Attended by a Page by Anthony Van Dyck (1634)


Close up of HALS, Frans Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan 1648-50
Close up of  Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan by Frans Hals (1648-50)


Probably Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange  studio of Gerrit van Honthorst oil on canvas, 1650s NPG 1534
Close up of a portrait thought to be Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange (1650s) From studio of Gerrit van Honthorst


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