Retouching: Nothing New Under the Sun?

“Every portrait tells a story, and that story usually involves some kind of lie.”1

It is probably obvious to modern readers that the flawless, beaming sitters that dot their Instagram feed may, outside of the frame, be not quite so flawless or beaming. That particular sitter with curiously flawless skin (for a 50-year old)? Here, as well, most are likely to be clear that there were blemishes to spare in the original capture that were left behind on the desktop.

But as I played the other day with a new post-processing software (this one was Luminar), the question crossed my mind as to whether the paltry few clicks required to take ten (or more!) years off of a sitter is necessarily a modern infatuation given how effortless such blemish and wrinkle removal has become. So I set out during the Covid-19 lockdown to consult the ancestors to help me understand whether or not us moderns have crossed some kind of threshold into an epidermic duplicity unknown in earlier, presumably more honest times.

Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein / Public domain.

There are many places we could begin, but Henry VIII would be as good as any, with the infamous story of the supposedly duplicitous portrait of Anne of Cleves. As commonly told, famous contemporary portraitist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) was commissioned to portray Anne, potential fourth wife of Henry VIII, for Henry’s consideration prior to making on official offer of marriage. Anne represented a good political match for the King given her connections to German Protestants, valuable allies for the recently anti-Catholic King. But…was she fair? Henry wished to know before getting too far ahead of himself. Historian G.R. Elton argues that Holbein’s work, commissioned by the King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was deliberately intended to be “a flattering portrait … which deceived both king and minister.”2 When Henry finally met Anne in person, so the story, the disappointment of her real-life visage was such that he had the marriage annulled, and Cromwell charge with treason. Now, never mind that more recent scholars3 have argued that there is no actual evidence that the portrait itself was the cause of Henry’s change of heart. What is interesting here is what it clearly suggests — that it was generally understood that the portraitist may have been leaned on to idealize his subject and thereby “deceive” the intended viewer.

The Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, Attributed to William Segar / Public domain

(Elizabeth I at approximately 50 years of age)

While it may now be disputed that Holbein deliberately idealized Anne, less dispute surrounds the falsification of another royal visage, that of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Elizabeth reigned from 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603, during a period of religious upheaval, bloody familial strife, and ongoing regional conflict. She also never married nor bore heirs, eventually fostering a cult of virginity, for which she earned the moniker ‘Virgin Queen.’ As part of this cult (and due also in part to the discomfort this caused government officials fretting over the uncertainty of her succession) Elizabeth’s likeness was frozen in time for several decades as a ‘Mask of Youth.’ Author Amy Moore describes it thus:

“This type of imagery arose from a government decision in 1594 to use an idealised portrait format. A possible reason for its adoption was that it was felt that any lifelike depiction of the ageing queen would reinforce instability within the realm, due to the uncertainty over the succession. The ‘Mask of Youth’ therefore offered a mechanism for Elizabeth’s government to control her image for propagandistic reasons, maintaining a strong profile of the unmarried and childless queen as still a forceful protector of the land.”4

There were many, many other examples beyond these widely recognized royal personae. Indeed, it seems that fully accurate representations of royal mugs were perhaps as likely as not to be made. Over at one author asserts that fudged portraits were a “big concern” for wealth- and power-seeking royals who were nonetheless still hoping for a pleasant face to wake up next to. And, neither was the issue strictly one based on male sexism: “In 1795, the future Queen Caroline of England spoke for generations of disappointed royals upon first meeting her fiancé, the Prince of Wales. ‘I find him very fat, and by no means as beautiful as his portrait.’”5

And, honestly, would we expect otherwise? “Even the greatest artists of the Renaissance and modern periods worked on commission and at the pleasure of patrons. Portraits documented status, and artists were paid to reveal power, wealth, and authority.”6 It seems naive, therefore, to think that “youth” “health” and “straight teeth” would not be included in this list. And indeed, routine beautification or idealization in oil portraiture is hinted at by one of the most famous British portraitists (Joshua Reynolds, 1723-1792) who wrote, “Even in portraits, the grace, and we may add, the likeness, consists more in taking the general air, than in observing the exact similitude of every feature.”7

One hundred years later, one painting instructor laid out his detailed guidance on handling blemishes as follows: “It is perfectly legitimate practice not only to veil and soften down accidental and natural defects, but even in some cases entirely to omit them. And a due distinction should be observed between permanent and transient effects. The eyes, nose, and mouth must be brought forward with all the reality due to the leading features of the face; but all incidental and supplemental characteristics which either break up the breadths of the study, or point an unfavorable allusion, as the wrinkles on the brow of age, or even the dimples on the cheek of youth, cannot be painted with all the direct force of the life. It is an utterly false position to say, that because they are there, they must be marked as strongly as in Nature; for how successfully soever any result of years, or accident, may be imitated in a portrait, it will always appear upon the canvas infinitely more prominent than in Nature.”8


And then there was photography. Daguerre and Talbot’s 1839 inventions that finally allowed, in their own highly divergent ways, for images fashioned from light to be permanently fixed upon a surface ushered in the promise of an objectivity unimaginable with drawing and painting. And, indeed, early photography was largely prized exactly for this extraordinary capacity for documentation. One modern scholar put it very succinctly, stating that in the nineteenth century, photography dedicated itself largely to recording “humans and buildings, mountains, and other largely immobile subjects with an eye toward detail, facts, and verisimilitude.”9 But, as with all things, there were exceptions, and it did not take long before the subjective “artistic” possibilities of photography were exploited for purposes other than straight documentation.

Fading Away, by Henry Peach Robinson.
George Eastman House Collection

As early as 1858, not twenty years after the formal announcement of the technology, artists such as Henry Peach Robinson were staging scenes and stacking negatives to make fantastic(al) works such as the one above. Robinson, generally considered one of the founders of the “pictorialist” movement, firmly believed that photography, while unique in certain aspects, was nonetheless as much a high art as oil painting or sculpture. As another modern scholar would explain, pictorialism implied “…commitments to the photographic image as a primary engagement with beauty— to feelings and artistic sensibility before fact and information.”10 And, indeed, at least in certain phases of pictorialism, photographers perhaps spent as much time, if not more, manipulating negatives as they did exposing them, suggesting that retouching (to get back to our question) was well within accepted practice.

Confessions, by Peter Henry Emerson / Public domain

And as we will quickly see, once photographic technology had advanced enough for (relatively) short exposures, and portraiture became commonplace, retouching, too, became common. Common enough, in fact, to elicit the sneers of the photographic cognoscenti. One such peer was Peter Henry Emerson, an Anglo-American amateur photographer active in the last two decades of the 19th century. Emerson, in direct contradistinction with Robinson, felt that photography was an art unto its own, and that it should not be considered alongside painting or other high arts. Emerson firmly rejected manipulation such as stacking multiple exposures or retouching negatives. In his work Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, Emerson squarely takes on the topic of retouching:

Retouching is the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting…It is the common plea of photographers that photography exaggerates the shadows, but we think it has been shown that if photography is properly practised, no such exaggeration of shadows takes place, and if it did, retouching would only add to the falsity in another way. This retouching and painting over a photograph by incapable hands, by whom it is always done, is much to be deprecated.

In case you feel Emerson wasn’t being fully forthcoming, he adds this a few pages down:

“When it comes, by the means of retouching, to straightening noses, removing double chins, eliminating squints, fattening cheeks, and smoothing skins, we descend to an abyss of charlatanism and jugglery, which we will not stop to discuss. That such things pay and please vain and stupid people, no one denies, but so do contortionists please a certain public, so do jugglers and tight-rope dancers, and such like, but all that is not art…Our parting injunction, then, to the photographer who would be an artist, is, avoid retouching in all its forms; it destroys texture and tone, and therefore the truth of the picture.”11

Despite this noble crie de coeur, it was relatively easy to find literature, still in the 19th century, not only referencing the concept of negative retouching, but the industry of negative retouching. Here is a snippet from a more modestly penned 1898 work entitled, “Amateur Portraiture at Home:”

…retouching means working with a pencil over every part of a face until the original texture is entirely obliterated, and then they proudly view the result as a work of art. My own experience of professional retouchers has been most unsatisfactory. No matter how much I instruct them that all I want done is the removal of technical blemishes, they seem to think that unless they put a new skin on the sitter they have not earned their money.12

But the reader will recall that we ended the first section above with a warning about the outsized prominence taken on by a blemish forever frozen in time and in glaringly plain view atop a canvas. Why would this point not be equally valid for photography? Furthermore, as photographic technology advanced, so did its ability to render extreme detail, making this warning ever more immediate. This observation was made in a 1909 textbook carrying the not very subtle title of Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography. Quite the tome, evidently, with the tenth volume of the series dealing specifically with negative retouching. As that volume recounted:

In the early days of photography, when the so-called “wet-plate process” was in use, prints were made direct from the negative without any alteration whatever, as the wet-plate rendered softer effects than are obtainable with the ready prepared dry-plate. The imperfections were less visible, and at that time the general public were satisfied with an exact likeness of themselves. With the advent of the dry-plate, however, the defects in the human face became more apparent on the negative, and there arose a demand for a greater softening of the lines and a removal of the more objectionable imperfections.13

And soften they did, apparently quite readily as well. Here are some examples from Volume X walking the student through the various retouching phases:

Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Step 4
Steps 1 - 4 in negative retouching, from the 1909 edition entitled, "Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography, Volume X: Negative Retouching, Etching and Modeling. Encyclopedic Index. Glossary." (One would be forgiven here for jumping back up a paragraph or two and re-reading the line about the retoucher completely obliterating the original texture and proudly viewing the result as a work of art.)


Can we say much that is definitive about retouching by selecting a handful of examples spread out over three hundred and seventy years? Perhaps only that grinding away every last detail from a face by pencil, brush, or mouse-click is hardly a new phenomenon, and neither is the debate surrounding the propriety to do so. Given the tension that has always existed, particularly in photography, among the countervailing demands of verisimilitude, artistic interpretation, and flattering clients, perhaps this is not the least bit surprising. It would appear that plasticine faces are with us to stay.

“Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni de’ Medici” by Agnolo Bronzino / Public domain. 1545.

  1. Debra Brehmer. “Every Portrait Tells a Lie,” Portrait Society Gallery. Accessed June 6, 2020.
  2. Elton, G.R. England Under the Tudors. (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 157.
  3. See for example:
  4. Amy Moore, “The image of power? Queen Elizabeth I and the ‘Mask of Youth’” Accessed June 9, 2020,
  5. Meares, Hadley. “How Unflattering Royal Portraits Could Break a Marriage Contract.” HISTORY. Accessed June 11, 2020.
  6. Portraits in Painting and Photography
    Author(s): Cynthia Freeland
    Source: Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 135, No. 1, Proceedings of the Thirty-Seventh Oberlin Colloquium in Philosophy: Aesthetics (Aug., 2007), p 97.
  7. Reynolds, Sir J. Discourses on art. ed. S. Mitchell (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), p. 41.
  8. Henry Murray, The Art of Portrait Painting in Oil Colours, with Observations on Setting and Painting the Figure (London: Winsor and Newton, 1851), 45.
  9. Jonathan Green, “Alfred Stieglitz and Pictorial Photography,” in Camera Work: A Critical Anthology, ed. Jonathan Green (New York: Aperture, Inc., 1973), 9.
  10. Jason Francisco, “Teaching Photography as Art,” American Art Vol. 21, No. 3 (Fall 2007), p. 19
  11. P.H. Emerson Naturalistic Photography (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, Limited, 1890), 184-190.
  12. Frederick Dundas Todd, Amateur Portraiture at Home (Chicago: The Photo-Beacon Company, 1898), 61.
  13. J.B. Schriever, ed., Complete Self-Instructing Library of Practical Photography, Volume X: Negative Retouching, Etching and Modeling. Encyclopedic Index. Glossary (Scranton: American School of Art and Photography, 1909), 15. Public Domain. Available at:

5 thoughts on “Retouching: Nothing New Under the Sun?

    1. Thank you, AJ. It was fun conducting the research. I wasn’t surprised that artists have been taking liberties with faces since…forever…but I was nonetheless a bit surprised to see a vibrant negative retouching industry already in the 19th century. If libraries had been opened I would have liked to try and pinpoint the earliest retouching studio. Maybe a follow-on article…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Such a widespread use of retouching certainly explains why older photographs always look so clean. I’d definitely be interest in seeing where the earliest retouching efforts began.


  1. This is an exceptionally well-written article that created many interesting suggestions on the subject. Can’t wait to learn more from Halistry!


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