New Science of Physiognomy & the Pathology of the Portrait.
The sentiment of love is painted in his look – but the form and bony system of his face characterize in him a taste for terrible scenes, and the energy which they require . Lavater on Henry Fuseli, from Essays on Physiognomy (1789–98).
In the late 18th century portraiture and theories of personality were enthusiastically combined, mainly thanks to the influence of the Swiss clergyman Johann Kaspar Lavater who during his lifetime published his Physiognomical Fragments which contained observations on how poses, gestures and facial expressions revealed character.1 As we have seen, poses derived from artistic and historical sources had always been important to the portrait painter, but there hadn’t been great interest in physiognomy, nor what the sitter’s face might betray about their mental state.2 But thanks to Lavater and those scholars of physiognomy that followed him it became customary to “read” busts and paintings for information they might provide about character.3 Thus a divide was perceived between those portraitists who were more attentive to the physiognomic details of a sitter (Mignard and Rigaud) and those who had a more brusquely generalised attitude towards their subjects (van Dyck). Just a glance at Rigaud’s Double Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, in addition to the influence of Rembrandt, shows more interest in the physical features of the sitter. Another French artist of the physiognomic category, Largillière, had been apprenticed to a painter in Antwerp and seems to have painted drapery and still-life accessories in the 1670s for portraits of Peter Lely (formerly of Haarlem).4 Lavater’s theories were to enjoy a vogue in France and Britain where they influenced artists like Blake and Fuseli whose heads convey something of the terror associated by Lavater with certain facial characteristics, as suggested by his lines on Fuseli above. To the romantics physiognomy held great potential because it encouraged portraits with unsettling qualities. Portraits could therefore be used to express pathology, as in Gericault’s portraits of criminals and patients (above), to give an obvious example in the romantic period. These inaugurate an entirely new species of portrait linking the genre to illness and debates about psychological conditions in post-revolutionary France.5 And in that country ideas about physiognomy influenced satirically minded artists like Leopold Boilly and in a more acerbic vein, Daumier’s ruthless portrayal of corruption and social evils in the Paris of Louis Phillipe.6
1On Lavater, Francis Haskell, History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past ((Yale University Press, 1993), 150f.
2On poses and portrait painters, Simon, The Portrait, 56f.
3Haskell, History and its Images, 152.
4Michael Baxandall, Shadows and Enlightenment, (Yale University Press, 1995), 136.
5Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France, (Yale University Press, 1995), 295-299.
6According to Montagu, Lavater spread Le Brun’s ideas on expression, albeit through distortions of the originals, into French nineteenth-century art including the “physiognomic” art of Daumier, The Expression of the Passions, 99.