I came across this print by Isaak Cruikshank and was instantly captivated. Instead sketching studies of rich and influential people, Cruikshank used the images of ordinary folks. The study of physiognomy goes back a long time, but as early as the 18th century, it was regarded as a dangerous “science.”
Physiognomy was regarded by those who cultivated it as a twofold science: (i) a mode of discriminating character by the outward appearance, and (2) a method of divination from form and feature. On account of the abuses of the latter aspect of the subject its practice was forbidden by the English law. By Ihe act of parliament 17 George II. c. 5 (1743) all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy wore deemed rogues and vagabonds, and were liable to be publicly whipped, or sent to the house of correction until next sessions.1 The pursuit thus stigmatized as unlawful is one of great antiquity, and one which in ancient and medieval times had an extensive though now almost forgotten literature. It was Very early noticed that the good and evil passions by their continual exercise stamp their impress on the face, and that each particular passion has its own expression”. – The Encyclopedia Britannica, a dictionary of arts and sciences, Vol 21, Google eBook
In About faces: physiognomy in nineteenth-century Britain, 2010 , Sharrona Pearl discusses the study of facial features and their relationship to character during Jane Austen’s and Charles Dickens’ day. Caricaturists felt the license to distort and exaggerate features, much as Cruikshank did. Portrait artists especially “learned how to communicate internal character and lived experience, while adhering strictly to the viewed external appearance.”
While Cruikshank’s images represented a fascinating study that provided a handy visual bank of expressions and features for the caricaturist, the study of physiognomy could take people down a dangerous path of fostering stereotypes. Hitler took to this practice to an extreme when he offered descriptions of ideal Aryan features and contrasted them to the facial features of the “typical Jew”. LeBrun’s image (above) compared people’s facial features to animals. There was nothing fun or funny about such sketches, which were more about prejudiced viewpoints than a reflection of reality.
While it is hard for humans to escape first impressions and to be judged by looks alone, one has to tread carefully in making assumptions based on regular or irregular features. In the hands of a talented artist, however, one can tell much about the sitter’s character through the skilled manipulation of features and expression. Norman Rockwell tells a delightful tale about the nature of gossip in this masterful 20th century caricature. He needed no words to tell his humorous story.
First image: Eighty-four physiognomic caricatures of English eighteenth century types. Etching by I. Cruikshank after G.M. Woodward.
1796 By: George Moutard Woodward after: Isaac Cruikshank
Published: Allen & West,London (15, Paternoster Row) : 1 August 1796
Size: platemark 24.9 x 37.1 cm.
Collection: Iconographic Collections
Library reference no.: ICV No 9699
Full Bibliographic Record Link to Wellcome Library Catalogue
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK: England & Wales, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html