Blushing: an exhibition by Michela de Mattei

I had the privilege to make a small contribution to a fascinating exhibition on blushing by the artist Michela de Mattei. It took place in the Belmacz Gallery, Mayfair, London during February and March 1930. If you see it advertised at another gallery, I recommend you go to see it. My contribution was a conversation with the artist. I reproduce it here.



  1. Do you agree that blushing is connected to a feeling of exposure? If so, what are we exposed to – is there a sudden change of self-perception?


The blush is frequently associated with embarrassment but some psychologists have attempted to be more specific about its causes; we blush with shame and shyness but do not necessarily do so when embarrassed. My own explanation is that it is triggered by exposure when some event threatens to reveal something about ourselves that we do not want to become known. This is similar to an alternative explanation in terms of unwelcome social attention except that it allows for colouring when not observed. This implies that we enter a state of heightened self-consciousness, an awareness of our self as we believe we would appear to others if all were known.


  1. Blushing is a process of making visible – can we see trends in the visibility of blushing in the history of visual art?


This is a difficult question to answer, albeit a very interesting one. The visual component of a blush is a temporary change in the colour of the face. This is typically fleeting although it can last for longer. One can ask whether an artist can depict this change convincingly in a static picture. Facial expression could be combined with a red cheek to suggest a blush but I am not aware of paintings of this kind. Perhaps you could draw my attention to some. Having said that, the portrayal of women with red cheeks has a very long history indeed, from Greek statues of 500 BC, medieval paintings, depictions of the Madonna, Renaissance paintings, and into recent times.  In his book Colors Demonic and Divine (2004), the historian Herman Pleij concludes that the medieval ‘model of feminine beauty demanded a red-and-white color scheme for the face’. It is possible that the blush on the cheek of the Virgin Mary is not only a sign of her beauty but also of modesty and innocence, since the Church’s doctrine of the Immaculate Conception maintains that she was pure and without sin. Red cheeks are not merely symbolic but are a sign of health and youth, of being in one’s sexual prime. There is a long history of using cosmetics, including blusher, to add colour to the face. Is this a separate phenomenon from the erotic blush?


I observed in the movie, The Favourite, that an aristocratic man at court in the eighteenth century would use rouge to add a rosy cheek to pale face and this representation seems to be historically accurate. This is unlikely to be intended to be a display of embarrassment and is surely either an attempt to convey a youthful appearance and mask blemishes or is a sexual display, related to physical youth or drawing upon or referring to the genuine blush as a response to a sexual advance.


  1. You use Austen’s novels to explore the gendering of the blush around expressions of modesty and sexuality, do you think the blush is still a gendered phenomenon today?


Jane Austen is of considerable interest in the study of blushing because of her acute insights into social relationships and encounters, and many of her characters have occasion to blush, mostly but not exclusively women. The blush can signal modesty that was expected of a woman in interaction with men. Norms and codes related to opposite-sex encounters have changed since that time when marriage was crucial for middle-class women, not least for financial reasons, but they were afforded few opportunities to take the initiative. The link between modesty and the blush remains today, for example when we are praised or complimented. There are some contemporary findings that women blush more readily than men do but the evidence is not consistent; whether the blush is still gendered is worthy of further research.


  1. 4. You have written frequently on Darwin’s study of emotions, he writes that “blushing is the most peculiar and the most humans of all expressions”. Do only humans blush?


The straightforward answer is yes. If we compare ourselves with other mammals then only our hairless face and the nature of our subcutaneous circulatory system – the network of veins lying close below the surface of the blush region – have the necessary physiology. Furthermore, as far as we know, only humans have the cognitive capacity for self-representation that can incorporate a sophisticated perception of how others evaluate us that leads to an emotional experience such as shame or embarrassment.  Darwin wrote that ‘the thinking about others thinking of us…excite a blush’ and regarded the capacity to do so as distinctively human.


On the other hand, if we ask instead whether there is an equivalent of the blush in other mammals then the answer is likely to be that there is such an equivalent. If we regard the blush as a signal to conspecifics of appeasement that is driven by fear of social rejection we recognise that this is common in other species although not displayed in the face.  The nature of social rejection varies across species and in many it can be a matter of life and death.  For us it is ‘social death’, fear of a loss of reputation or rejection by groups that we value. This explanation encompasses the fact that the blush is uncontrollable: It is a signal that cannot be feigned and thus is an example of what biologists call an ‘honest signal’; it is trustworthy


Alternatively, we might propose that the blush functions as a sexual signal, perhaps displaying coyness, reflecting arousal following awareness of being the object of sexual attention or revealing a conflict between attraction and reluctance at the prospect of sex, perhaps originating in the process of sexual selection. If you ask people to recall occasions when they bushed, incidents with sexual connotations are frequently mentioned. Sexual selection is found across species as are associated signals even if they do not take the form of facial reddening.



Ray Crozier

January 26, 2019.


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