Physiognomy is judgement of a person’s character by the facial features. It has persisted for thousands of years in many cultures, even mentioned by Aristotle and the medieval scholars. During times of great emotional and social upheaval, it is comforting for many to claim control over forces they can’t or don’t understand. Human behavior is one of those forces.
PHYSIOGNOMY is from the Greek: “Physis” meaning ‘nature’ and “Gnomon” meaning ‘judge’ or ‘interpreter’.
Lauren Muney of Silhouettes By Hand has painstakingly researched and presents physiognomy for interested persons, museums, and events. Here are several images of her most recent display, used at several spring events in 2012.
The connection between silhouettes (profile portraits) and physiognomy is obvious: people who want to know what their own face “showed” of their personality, had their profiles made to expert exactness as to ‘read’ their outward appearance.
The Medieval Thinkers
had a main idea about human behavior: “like resembles like”. If a human resembled a certain animal, then the person’s behavior could be judged as similar to that animal’s behavior. People could be easily classified and “understood”. In a world that didn’t understand the human body or atmospheric forces, this was a perfectly rational idea of [human] behavior.
In the 1770s,
Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater developed a treatise that codified and “explained” a more scientific and spiritual dimension of the link between facial features and behavior – or rather, human character, which informed behavior. Lavater, deeply interested in the passions that swayed men, stated:
- Our facial bones are soft, and therefore very malleable by forces inside of us.
- Our [internal] passions are strong, and therefore can move those soft bones into predictable patterns.
- These outward signs (ie: facial features) of the predictable patterns of passions, also considered character and behavior, can be read by people well-studied in these mysteries.
Lavater’s writings were published frequently in many languages, and updated for decades. One main reason that his books were so popular is that they offered “scientific” reasons and ‘codes’ for patterns seen in every face. His books meticulously reviewed each facial feature in detail, providing a black-and-white view of intelligence . . and stupidity; those people to trust . .. and those to discard; . . . and ethnic commentary based on facial features.
Physiognomy was seen (and used) in almost every facet of social living, starting in the Colonial era (1770s) and moving through the Revolutionary (1770-1780s) into the Federal period (1790-1820) and into the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, and even into our modern era.
A few of 18th Century physiognomy’s early influences on social structure:
- Physiognomy preferences shaped how artists portrayed their patrons’ portraits. It was considered unprofessional for many decades during the 18th century for artists to show how a subject truthfully looked in real life. Instead, it was aesthetically and socially preferred to present the physiognographically “correct” view of the most honorable characteristics that the subject should instill into the viewer. Go look at George Washington’s portraits – he does not always look the same, except for his hairstyle.
- Moneyed citizens became wild for physiognomy. They had their profile-portraits taken with the greatest of exactness, especially with the newly-patented tracing machines (starting in the 1790s), especially to identify their own character traits that others could be reading on their own faces.
- Physiognomic “perfection” was used to help the new United States ‘sort’ its society: the first society born without a built-in [monarchal] hierarchy. Consider their unprecedented dilemma: how could you know who was the “better” ‘sort’ of people, unless you created a way to actually sort them?
If you think this is interesting about the 18th Century, you should see what the 19th Century brings! (… To Be Continued…)
Silhouettes by Hand‘s physiognomy display allows you to see examples of common physiognomic shapes (here: noses are used) and modern comments about what those noses might signify. Lauren hand-sculpted each nose individually from special clay, and classified each nose for easy identification by event visitors.