While the ‘science’ of physiognomy defined character by physical characteristics, a series of extraordinary 17th-century drawings goes a step further. Melding animal and human features, what do these images have to say about our hidden inclinations?
Physiognomy, the questionable practice of evaluating a person's character based on their physical appearance, goes back to ancient Greece, with Aristotle stating that it "is possible to judge men's character from their physical appearance, if one grants that body and soul change together in all natural character traits”. Its heyday, however, was in the 1800s, when it influenced the cranium-mapping of phrenology and criminology, with people like Italian physician Cesare Lombroso theorising that criminals could be identified by facial features.
One of the strangest investigations in the history of physiognomy was carried out in 17th-century France by painter Charles Le Brun, the favourite artist of Louis XIV and creator of allegorical murals at Versailles.
In March 1671, at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, Le Brun gave a lecture in which he highlighted the connections between human and animal physiognomies. All of the notes from that lecture have disappeared. However, the accompanying pen-and-ink illustrations survive, with more than 250 comparative drawings now at the Louvre in Paris. In one, three men are augmented with the fierce eyes and tousled mane of a lion, while in another the wide eyes and long beak of an owl are transferred onto a trio of men, giving them shocked gazes and hooked noses. In their bestial transformation, they seem like Baroque predecessors to the ‘Animorphs’ science-fiction series.
Physical signs of character
According to the minutes of the Academy, as cited in Michael Gareau’s ‘Charles Le Brun: First Painter to King Louis XIV’, Le Brun presented “all of the various manifestations that he had drawn, both animal and human heads, pointing out the features marking their natural inclinations”. Annotations on some of his sketches recall these inclinations, such as the cat-men marked as "opiniâtre & crantif" (“stubborn & timid”) and a group of bulls' heads labelled "obstinate", "wild", and “stupid”. Meanwhile, equilateral triangles superimposed over animal heads showed how geometry was essential to Le Brun’s theory, with the angles of the face supposedly able to suggest if the creature was carnivorous.
Even without Le Brun’s notes, we can guess it probably wasn’t a great sign of character to look like an ass. Still, these animal-human fusions were part of a much greater examination by Le Brun of the human face and its passions. As Lucy Hartley writes in ‘Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture’, "Le Brun argued that each individual had a dominant sign or facial feature which revealed their character, based on the a priori fact of the existence of the soul. This feature, the slope of the eyes, worked in tandem with the movements of the eyebrows to indicate the kind of character under analysis.”
The beast in man
Le Brun’s physiognomic studies of animals reinforced his ideas about there being something uncontrollable in our basest nature that drove both virtue and vice.
Thanks to the eclectic menagerie at Versailles, with its camels, monkeys, foxes, and other local and exotic creatures, there were plenty of models available to Le Brun. The monkey juxtaposition is especially interesting as Le Brun was, long before Charles Darwin, seriously considering the relationship between human and simian, and he likely couldn’t miss that they were much more similar than, say, human and goat. Nevertheless, there’s no sign the religious Le Brun had any inkling of evolutionary theory.
Throughout his career, Le Brun was interested in systematic painting and drawing processes, whether via the laws of anatomy or the representation of human emotions. While the animal-men appear now like whimsical abominations, he was directly responding to 17th-century ideas around humanity. The work of Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista della Porta, whose 1586 ‘De humana physiognomonia’ included animal-human comparisons, was translated into French in the 1650s; the philosopher René Descartes, in the 1649 ‘Passions of the Soul’ considered how the attachment of the soul to the body through the pineal gland meant that the essence of a person was expressed in their physique. And in the 1668 ‘Fables’ by Jean de La Fontaine, animals stood in for humans in moralising tales.
Le Brun’s illustrations might have remained an obscure oddity, except that their publication as a collection in 1806 introduced them to a new audience fascinated with physiognomy. And although his complete discussion of his animal comparisons is now lost, the images reinforced the often dangerous notion that some people are more beast than human. They were used, as well as the physiognomic descriptions that populated art and literature, to support ominous racial and gender stereotyping.
More recently, physiognomy seemed to have been consigned to the annals of 19th-century pseudoscience, but it has now experienced a worrying revival in discussions surrounding facial recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning and facial detection are enabling new experiments, from Stanford University’s computer algorithm attempting to predict someone's sexual orientation, to researchers at China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University assessing the facial features of criminals versus non-criminals. The results of these tests are, at best, questionable; however, the interest in new technological possibilities means such studies are set to continue, taking physiognomy into the future.
About the contributors
Allison C. Meier
Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic.