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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.2 (2003) 266-269
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Outward Sign and Inward Condition:
Recent Studies in Physiognomy, Anthropometry, and Related Sciences
Lucy Hartley. Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, 2001). Pp. xii + 242. $55.00.
Miriam Claude Meijer. Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper,1722-1789 (Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi. Studies in the History of Ideas in the Low Countries, 1999). Pp. x + 251. $61.00.
Melissa Percival. The Appearance of Character: Physiognomy and Facial Expression in Eighteenth-Century France (London: W.S. Maney and Son, for the Modern Humanities Research Association, MHRA Texts and Dissertations, Vol. 47, 1999). Pp. iv + 218. $77.00.
Among the methods employed by writers attempting to explore and explain the unknown, one of the most attractive is analogy, the demonstration of likeness between familiar and unfamiliar. Today we tend to view analogy as a species of rhetorical artifice, but in the thought of ancient and early-modern European writers it often serves an important model of reality, as in the doctrine of correspondences. This "prescientific" principle, assuming universal coherence in the created world, allowed the discovery of patterns connecting external form and essence. In traditional herbal medicine, for instance, a plant with kidney-shaped leaves was understood to possess medicinal virtue for renal problems, and the shape of flower and root indicated the way the essence of the plant could affect the human constitution. By a similar turn of logic it was thought possible to discern in the face and form of people signs of their essential nature.
Aristotle—or rather one or more writers of the Aristotelian school—wrote in the third century B.C.E. that mental character is affected by bodily conditions, and conversely that the body is influenced by the affections of the soul. Over the ensuing centuries there have been many attempts to discover how these correspondences operate, most notably Polemon and Adamantius in the late classical period, Giovanni Battista della Porta in the sixteenth century, Charles Le Brun in the seventeenth century, and Johann Caspar Lavater in the eighteenth century. In the early modern era there was no shortage of other physiognomical works, many combined with such arcane disciplines as astrology, palmistry, metoposcopy, and chiromancy. Such associations were troublesome and even dangerous, in the light of religious prohibitions against fortune-telling, and so many physiognomists distanced themselves from prediction, focusing instead on diagnostics. And so the term fell into general use, as when Burke considered the correspondence of gentle and amiable inner qualities with the outward manifestation of beauty in the human [End Page 266] face, or when novelists referred to a certain cast of a character's face as an indication of his or her essential nature. Indeed, with the astonishing popular influence of Lavater's approach to physiognomy from the late eighteenth century onward for over a century, physiognomy became a key component in fiction and the visual arts, a field which has received abundant critical attention over the past thirty years.
Studies of consequent influence, or what Lucy Hartley calls "the uses of physiognomy as a hermeneutic praxis" (4), are an essential part of intellectual history, and yet until recently there has not been nearly as much critical work done on the history, logic, theory, and varying methods of the major exponents of physiognomy. Lavater, of course, has overshadowed earlier and contemporary theorists, so there has remained a much relatively unexplored territory. There is much to celebrate, therefore, in the publication of new studies that focus on the relation of face to essence in theories of expression in the visual arts, racial theory in early anthropology, and the physiology and psychology of expression.
Melissa Percival's study focuses on the aesthetics of representing the human face in the visual arts of eighteenth-century France, starting with a meticulous account of the influence of Charles Le Brun. His illustrations for the 1688 lecture Conférence sur l'expression générale...