Beauty & The Beast

The Reality of Beauty Lies In Its Vulnerability - Nefertiti, Rembrandt & Covid-19

I was recently having one of those inspiring conversations (under the current circumstances) with a colleague on the skin lipid barrier and Covid-19. At the end of the meeting, I began to reminisce about the time I worked in Delft on the development of skin ceramides and sphingolipid derivatives many years ago. Yet, it was not this, nor my ongoing fascination with the skin’s barrier that caught my attention. It was actually my time spent in the Netherlands learning about Rembrandt.

The Reality of Beauty

Rembrandt, for those whose interests do not lie in art (as a scientist I find it helps the creative discovery process!), was an artist that defied his critics and painted what he actually 'saw' - not what was 'expected'. Forget the heavenly perfection of Michael Angelo’s ‘David’. Rembrandt was earthly in that he sketched and painted humanity in all its vulnerability and 'truth'. In 1638 he sketched 'Adam and Eve', and in 1631 the ‘Nude on a Mound’ pictured in this blog. In his day, the critics were astonished because they expected him to paint what pleased the eye - he did, but it was his eye! There was no airbrushing as we see today, he painted beauty in all its vulnerability. If you look at the painting closely (currently in the Ashmoelum Museum in Oxford), the woman is actually 'beautiful'. Her face is bright and cheerful, youthful, no apparent skin 'stress', and with a mane of curly hair. Yet, so many will recoil at seeing the ‘truth’. To be honest she could be described in todays beauty terms as an ‘average consumer’.


Yet what about the ‘not-so-average consumer’? Thousands of years before Rembrandt, Thutmose in 1340 BC sculpted the perceived beauty of the Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti. Currently in the Neues Museum Berlin, she is described as ‘ a grown woman with a harmonic and balanced beauty’. Look more closely, and this description is clearly wrong - at least as I see it.


Rembrandt’s Nude and Nefertiti have something in common. They both lived in the time of plague. Nefertiti has only one eye, since it is reported that during her reign eye infections were rampant. Furthermore, plague visited Egypt on a regular basis. In the 1630’s bubonic plague ran through Europe, and not for the first time, and Rembrandt would be have been aware of this.

Nefertiti, if you look at her, is not exactly a 'balanced beauty' under all that kohl and ‘paint’. In addition to her single eye, her face is lined with 'stress' from not only the sun but also because she seems to be carrying a great weight - her neck is stiff and rigid, almost about to break, as if she is trying to rise above it all - pretending to be something ‘expected’ rather than who is she really is. In fact Nefertiti is showing signs of 'ageing', yet she is considered beautiful. Rather than Rembrandt's? This is such a judgemental and common human trait - in the here and now when we view people, the idiotic pursuit of that so-imagined perfect selfie, and the tortuous treatments undertaken to create an airbrushed look rather than accepting 'reality'. Furthermore, if you look at the full body sculpture of Nefertiti, it is no more beautiful or ugly than Rembrandt's depiction of the Nude. Nefertiti carries the same body as all inbred Pharaoh’s of the time, and has legs that clearly are not those of a honed ballet dancer.


So, what do these two women mean for us centuries later, and in the midst of a plague?

They both serve as a warning:

Don’t take beauty at face value, and don’t take it for granted.

We will never know if Rembrandt’s model survived the plague or whether Nefertiti’s apparently short life was a result of plague induced illness - the historian's have yet to agree. Yet, this Covid-19 is taking it's toll, and as an industry we have to learn from it and history before it.

So many I hear say, they can't wait to get back to 'normal'.

But the key lesson is that 'normal' was actually the problem!

Tester bars (like washing machines in kitchen's, and toilets next to a bath) have to become a thing of the past and we need to create something that prevents the consumer using them as their own 'free' source of personal makeup. Makeup artists will also be affected as well as makeovers given in-store.

We have seen people sharing masks in this Covid crisis, so it will not be easy to educate the consumer on the hazards of sharing their colour cosmetics or their skin care. We have failed so far. It may be that sampling increases, though this has environmental concerns and in the long-term may not prove practical since consumers are impatient beings. Buying colour cosmetics digitally may work a few, but not all, and those without smart phones and the like will be excluded. This means lower sales. Furthermore, testing cosmetics on 'real skin' is of higher value for a successful sale.

Finally, as with the fashion industry there are too many brands, and you have heard this from me before. Many will fall by the wayside, others will get swallowed up and digested by mergers, takeovers, and digestion.

All in all, at least as far as the industry is concerned, Covid-19 may well be a blessing in disguise, and hopefully we will find ourselves delivering for genuine skin needs and benefits, rather than frivolous consumerism, and that all to common urge to make a quick 'buck'.


How COVID-19 is changing the world of beauty.

Help! I’m Covered in Adjectives: Cosmetic Claims & The Consumer.