The Primacy of Poetry: On Tita Chico’s The Arts of Beauty: Women’s Cosmetics and Pope’s Ekphrasis

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On Tita Chico’s The Arts of Beauty: Women’s Cosmetics and Pope’s Ekphrasis

In “The Arts of Beauty: Women’s Cosmetics and Pope’s Ekphrasis,” Tita Chico contends that ekphrastic representations of women in The Rape of the Lock and Epistle to a Lady indicate Pope’s privileging poetic artistry over the art of cosmetics. In both poems, Pope exploits the humiliation of a “cosmetically constructed woman” in an effort to assert the supremacy of his own artistic authority (Chico 4). Chico uses other scholars―Laura Brown, Christa Knellwolf, and Felicity Naussbaum chief among them―to anchor the origins of her argument, but she immediately addresses their respective limitations. She gently criticizes other scholars for
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The other women are identified chiefly by the appearance of their portraits, but the ideal woman’s rendering is what Chico terms an “antiportrait, one that ultimately sheds its pictorial skin and that can exist only in language” (19). The so-called “softer Man” is described by non-physical words such as “Pleasure,” “Rest,” “Courage,” “Softness,” “Modesty,” and “Pride” (19). Compare this with the ekphrastic objects used to define the Queen’s virtues, such as “Crown,” “Gems,” and “Ball” (19). The Queen’s interior is a mystery because her exterior is enshrouded in trivial things; the Queen is a vacuous presence and, as Chico contends, the “cosmetic surface, paradoxically, is her truth” (18). This part of Chico’s argument shines.

Chico divides her argument into two discrete sections. The first situates cosmetic arts in historical context, and the second discusses ekphrasis in Pope’s work in Rape and To a Lady. Though not wholly relevant to the rhetorical argument on Pope, Chico’s discussion of cosmetic arts is both interesting and edifying. To briefly summarize, Chico presents the art of face painting as an important eighteenth century debate. Some feared the power―however specious―lent to women by cosmetic application; not only did make-up allow women to seem more beautiful, it enabled them to engage in an “art.” Arguments regarding the value of cosmetics circulated throughout the public sphere in Pope’s age,

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