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Portrait of van Beck by an unknown painter
Portrait of van Beck by an unknown painter

A two day international conference will be taking place exploring human beauty from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment the Wellcome Collection , London on the 10-11 January.

Organised by the University of Birmingham’s Professor Karen Harvey and Professor Sarah Toulalan from the University of Exeter, in collaboration with Dr Angela McShane from Wellcome Collection, the two-day symposium will combine the disciplines of art history, the history of ideas and aesthetics, social history and the history of medicine to interrogate the topic of physical beauty and the human body.

Professor Karen Harvey, a British historian who works on the long eighteenth century, with particular interests in gender, the body, material culture and public history said: ‘At a time when new forms of media seem to be encouraging us to place increasing emphasis on our physical appearance, the research presented at this conference allows us to reflect on longer term trends. Over twenty scholars from around the world are sharing their findings on beauty in Britain and France, China, Japan and early America. We have always judged people by how they look - that has not changed. And beauty is and never has been skin deep - it is always an ethical ideal. What has changed are the standards by which our judgements are made and the meanings we give to physical features, whether that be the colour of our skin, the shape of our nose or the power and agility of our body.’

The symposium will see historians of art; culture and medicine take an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of beauty, attending to the aesthetic, social, political and medical ramifications of human physical attractiveness. A special session will consider the beauty of Barbara van Beck , the bearded woman whose rare portrait was acquired by the Wellcome last year.

Topics discussed at the conference will be:

Ideas and Aesthetics

How were ideas about beauty discussed in literary and philosophical texts and a variety of other sources? In what fields were aesthetics deployed politically and ethically?

Art and the Body

How did artists’ depictions of the beautiful body and face change during this period? What symbolic purposes did the depiction of beauty serve?

Beauty and Ugliness

How was the deployment of beauty used to mark superiority? And how is this related to the understanding of ugliness and its relation to other concepts such as evil, degeneracy and immorality?

Grooming and Health

What practices did people used to improve, preserve, or alter their bodily and/or facial appearance? What practices prevailed in the care of hair, the skin, and personal presentation? What social or psychological significance was attached to these practices?

Sculpting the Body Beautiful

How did individuals seek to improve the appearance and attractiveness of their bodies? What was the relationship between physical activity, bodily fitness, and attractiveness? How did individuals seek the intervention of science and medicine to improve their physical appearance?

Material Culture and Clothing

What ‘things’ were necessary to remain fashionable and attractive? How was clothing used to enhance physical beauty? What were the relationships between beauty culture, consumer practices, and personal status in the early modern period?


When was the naked body considered to be beautiful or ugly? What were the changing standards for bodily display and how were they affected by cultural developments or political movements?

Desire and Sexuality

How were beautiful bodies and faces represented in material intended for erotic purposes? Did these differ from other contexts? What was the connection between modes of sexual expression/sexual identities and ideas about physical beauty, age, and health? What role did the possession of beauty and erotic capital play in the early modern period?

Beauty in the early modern period was generally connected to both health and ethics as external beauty reflected the internal wellbeing and good taste in appearances as an index of moral rectitude.