Faces of the People

Richard Altick

  • Physiognomy in the European Novel: Faces and Fortunes by Graeme Tytler
    Princeton, 436 pp, £19.10, March 1982, ISBN 0 691 06491 1
  • A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th-century Paris by Judith Wechsler
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £18.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 500 01268 7

‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ said King Duncan in the fourth scene of Macbeth. But there was, and Shakespeare knew this. Almost at the moment he was writing the play, a new law required that anybody who professed ‘a knowledge of phisnognomie’ – one version of the name by which the practice of reading character in facial features was known to the learned – was to be ‘openly whipped untill his body be bloudye’. Obviously, physiognomy was then regarded with some scepticism. But Francis Bacon, the harbinger of modern science, was not among the doubters. He thought physiognomy had ‘a solide ground in nature’ so long as it was not ‘coupled with superstitious and fantasticall arts’ such as astrology and even sorcery, with which, as the Elizabethan prohibition implies, it was often associated.

Charlatanry it may have been, but like some other pseudo-sciences it bore solid credentials from antiquity. Pythagoras and Hippocrates had endorsed it as a formal study, and Physiognomonica, the treatise that was most instrumental in conveying ancient thought on the character-revealing power of the face and bodily bearing, was attributed in the Middle Ages to Aristotle himself. Such ambivalence persisted into the 18th century. Diderot often respectfully alluded to physiognomy in his philosophical writings and applied it in his fictional character descriptions. Sterne, on the other hand, arranged that Walter Shandy’s forthright declaration that ‘there are a thousand unnoticed openings ... which let a penetrating eye at once into a man’s soul’ should degenerate into nonsense, and Fielding differentiated his honest characters, the naive and the stupid, from their victimisers, the hypocritical and fraudulent, according to whether they depended on physical appearance to reveal or conceal the truth.

This, however, was before Johann Caspar Lavater, no charlatan but an eminent Swiss cleric who was a central figure in Zurich’s religious and intellectual life for many years, published his four-volume Physiognomische Fragmente in 1775-78. The Fragmente were a typical 18th-century blend of theology and science which rested on the familiar premise that ‘man is made in the image of God; and since man is a divine creature, it is the physiognomist’s duty to look for the good in him, and to find excuses for the defects.’ But the religious underpinning was largely lost as the Fragmente quickly made their way into the secular atmosphere of Europe through a veritable flood of editions, translations, abridgements and popularised versions. It was their scientific trimmings, and Lavater’s insistence on the observational skills necessary to deduce the inner man from the outer, that turned the study of physiognomy into an intellectual vogue which survived by several decades the twilight of the Enlightenment, eventually becoming a part of everyday thought and life. In 1801 the Gentleman’s Magazine testified that the Fragmente, in translation, ‘were thought as necessary in every family as even the Bible itself. A servant would, at one time, scarcely be hired but the description and engravings of Lavater had been consulted in careful comparisons with the lines and features of the young man’s or woman’s countenance.’

Notwithstanding the weight and elaborateness of those four volumes, Lavater considered the characterological study of the face as being in its infancy. His and his disciples’ hopes that it would develop into an exact science were not fulfilled. For the next century, its indirect influence was to be felt in several other emerging disciplines, among them anthropology, ethnology, psychology and criminology, but as a means of interpreting a person’s moral make-up its authority was usurped by another enormously popular pseudo-science – Gall’s theory of phrenology, which diverted attention from the chin, mouth, nose, eyes, eyebrows, forehead and hair to telltale bumps on the head. Some theorists and practitioners merged the two, as did the popular imagination, but they were actually quite separate studies.

Meanwhile, scores of writers in Germany, France and England added physiognomical principles to their stock of ideas: Goethe, Heine, Herder, Novalis, Jean Paul, Madame de Staël, Stendhal, George Sand. Many English writers, resisting the fanaticism with which phrenology was being promoted (George Combe’s The Constitution of Man, the central manifesto of the cult, sold 50,000 copies between 1835 and 1838 alone), preferred the more plausible and more rationally advanced claims of physiognomy. Hazlitt, commenting that ‘one might as well quote the Koran to a Cossack, as truth to a phrenologist,’ admired the ‘language of expression’ as ‘a kind of mother-tongue at which we learn to become more or less adept’.

Graeme Tytler’s book describes the impact of Lavater, or at least physiognomy as popularised by his successors, on the 19th-century European novel. The device of physical description which after 1800 became a hallmark of fictional technique was, he argues, a direct result of Lavater’s insistence that the human face (and, to a lesser extent, the hands and voice) was an accurate indication of character, and much of this portraiture involved the borrowing of physiognomical material. In effect, Lavater and the Lavaterians supplied the literary artist with the equivalent of a vastly enlarged Identikit with its classified stock of ready-made physical details. From these he chose the components that would best exemplify to a physiognomy-wise audience the personality of the character he was creating and assembled them into what Tytler calls a ‘composite portrait’ – the antithesis of a likeness painted from a single living model. Instead of deriving his descriptions from direct observation, the novelist got them, whether deliberately or unconsciously, from his recollection of physiognomic pattern books. Or, if he did paint from life, he saw his models through eyes conditioned by physiognomy. Thus the novelist’s imagination worked both analytically and synthetically, and the resulting portrait was a product of what might be called scientific impressionism.

That 19th-century novelists, like most writers of the time, were well aware of physiognomy is certain; Tytler sweeps together a mass of widely scattered bits of evidence to that effect. But how pronouncedly it coloured their thinking about morality and psychology, to say nothing of their actual craft, is far from clear. The physiognomic origins and structure of the composite portrait are illustrated only by examples, insufficient to clinch the case, from Le Rouge et le Noir, Villette, Tieck’s Vittoria Accorombona, Fromentin’s Dominique and Gotthelf’s Geld und Geist. Somewhat more persuasive is Tytler’s demonstration that the novelists often availed themselves of single traditional physiognomic correspondences: brown or black eyes are the sign of physical or moral strength; blue eyes belong to gentle characters; ‘strong characters are almost always dark-haired’ while ‘fair hair is often assigned to characters of an essentially gentle nature’ although it is ‘sometimes a feature of characters who are weak, stupid, or morally defective’.

But, with the cautious candour of a true scholar, Tytler admits that some brief, one-epithet descriptions of separate features may well be the legacy of the novelists’ predecessors, and that ‘much 19th-century literary portraiture, particularly general facial description, seems to be little more than a means whereby the novelist helps his readers to visualise the characters he introduces.’ Exit Lavater. Tytler tries to save the day by insisting that descriptions of non-facial features – the hands and clothes – are more distinctly Lavaterian in inspiration. (Barbara Hardy and John Carey have illuminatingly anatomised the significance of clothes as an index of character in Dickens and Thackeray, without invoking physiognomy.) But the truth is that after the effective build-up in the background chapters which comprise half of his book, Tytler’s effort to establish physiognomy as a major factor in the 19th-century novelist’s craft is unsatisfying, even anti-climactic. Hypotheses seeking to identify the influences that shaped a body of literature come equipped with a self-destruct mechanism in the form of two beguiling but potentially compromising accomplices, the companion fallacies of post hoc ergo propter hoc and the single cause. It may be merely a coincidence, after all, that it was only after the dissemination of Lavaterian doctrine, first felt in minor German and French fiction in the 1790s, that old-fashioned conventionalised and idealised portraiture began to be replaced by a more individualised variety, in which physical features were selected specifically to imply the inner character.

Again, whatever their true indebtedness to physiognomy, the novelists’ evolving techniques of character description had other sources for which Tytler makes little allowance. There was, for instance, the growing popularity in France and England of 17th-century Dutch genre painting, with its Rembrandtesque care to portray all faces faithfully, no matter how commonplace, unattractive or downright ugly they were; and there was also the popularity of contemporary genre art, first Chardin and Greuze in France, then Wilkie, Mulready, Webster, Frith and innumerable others in England, all of whom, painting for a bourgeois audience, painted bourgeois – individualised, not idealised – faces. Simultaneously, there was an increasing demand for portraits as more and more people could afford that particular indulgence in vanity. In each case, the artist’s concentration, like the physiognomist’s but not necessarily because of it, was on the physical features which were most faithful to the inner personality. Nor can one overlook Sir Walter Scott, whose frequent insertion of detailed character portraits, unprecedented in his day, set a model for many if not most novelists at home and abroad. Tytler acknowledges his importance in passing, and cites several instances of physiognomic allusion and device in the Waverley novels. But Scott’s influence on techniques of characterisation had nothing to do with the physiognomical fashion, and indeed was, of itself, more extensive and profound than the total effect of Lavater.

The plodding, patiently expository style of Tytler’s book bears unerased evidence of its origin as an American dissertation. Judith Wechsler’s, no less scholarly, is more readable, and the content, less literary, is considerably livelier. Despite the subtitle, Lavater remains in the background. The two books do not overlap, but on occasion they come into fruitful conjunction when they look at a common subject from their contrasting perspectives. The figure of the witness, for example: Tytler, in some of his best pages, shows how the character of a fictional narrator was defined by the way he, like a physiognomist, went about describing the appearance of other persons in the story and his reaction to the ‘signals’ he read in their faces and bearing. Wechsler, for her part, stresses Daumier’s abiding fascination with witnesses at public events, members of an audience (at a play, in a courtroom, at an incident in the street): to him, the spectators were themselves the spectacle, not what they were looking at.

There are other, smaller points of contact between the books. Caricature, which is Wechsler’s chief interest, had earlier contributed its bit, in the form of engravings from Hogarth and others, to the running iconography of the Physiognomische Fragmente; the physiognomy of social types, applied by such writers as Flaubert in Madame Bovary, Jane Austen in Emma and Dickens in Great Expectations, also looms large in the history of 19th-century French caricature; and Wechsler’s main title recalls Fernand Baldensperger’s assertion that (in Tytler’s translation) ‘of all the 1830 generation, Balzac is the one writer to have most rigorously systematised Lavater’s ideas, while contributing something of his own.’ A true believer in the ‘real science’ of physiognomy, Balzac used its language in introducing many of the characters in La Comédie Humaine, which, in its huge totality, formed a comprehensive typology of bourgeois French life, and to which the work of Daumier, the presiding figure in this age of energetic and often mordant caricature, was often compared.

In the Paris of 1830-70, the social crisis generated by the flood of new residents from the provinces and the constant shift in neighbourhood populations exposed the inadequacy of spoken and written language, the traditional mode of communication and of adjustment to the conditions of urban living. Half of the people were illiterate in any case. It was the caricaturists’ achievement that they gave faces to the faceless crowd, a non-verbal means by which the people were oriented and given a sense of individual and class identity, for into the breach they brought the unspoken ‘visual language’ that Lavater had schematised, the ‘visible bodily clues to class, profession, character and circumstances’ that enabled the groping, unsettled Parisian masses to categorise one another and understand more cleary what their personal relationships were like. The dual process of ‘decoding character’ and ‘encoding human interactions’, as Wechsby describes it, was carried on in the popular theatre as well as in pictorial form. The mime stage, typified by Deburau’s silent Théâtre des Funambules, widening out from the classical repertoire of theatrical gesture which had developed independently of physiognomy, transformed the traditional Commedia dell’ Arte material into a variety of pantomime genres as immediately reflective of the Parisian scene of the day as was caricature.

To a much greater extent than in England at the same time, when no newspapers contained cartoons and only the weekly Punch, founded in 1841, resumed the tradition of topical graphic satire that was once the brawling territory of Gillray, Rowlandson and the young Cruikshank, in Parisian daily and weekly journalism between the July Revolution and the Third Republic caricature was at least as important as the printed word. The inventive skills of numerous artists, including Daumier in his early period, borrowed the physiognomic patterns from the Lavaterian encyclopedia of characters both to provide with an instantaneous label, and to comment on, public figures and entire classes. With an imagistic impudence fully appreciated only by those familiar with the resounding patriotic rhetoric of Napoleonic-era painting, satirical artists contrived elaborate allegorical representations of public events, the figures modeled after Lavater’s rather than David’s.

A kindred genre, the portrait charge, used the central technique of caricature, grotesque exaggeration of physical attributes, to depict politicians. The most celebrated instance of the kind began with the transformation of Louis-Philippe into a pear (poire – also French slang, fathead) by Charles Philipon, shortly to become the founder of Le Charivari. His fellow caricaturists joyfully took up the image, and the pear, in innumerable forms, became the emblem not only of the king but of his courtiers and ministers and all the avaricious speculators who battened on the courtly corruption. ‘With this kind of plastic slang,’ Baudelaire noted long afterward, ‘artists could express and convey to the populace anything they liked, and it was, therefore, around this tyrannical and cursed pear that the large mob of yelling patrons collected.’ But the hard-pressed Government cried ‘enough’ and the graphic satirists who had cultivated the multi-purpose pear found themselves ejected from what would appear to them in retrospect to have been a comparative Eden, where the wrists of the irreverent were only lightly slapped. For in 1835 the law decreed: no more pears, and no more political caricature of any kind. The censorship lasted until 1866, with only a four-year hiatus in the middle of the century. To get around it, some caricaturists and pantomimists cultivated a subtle language of innuendo, of graphic riddles and puns. This vocabulary of image rather than word, a visual repertory shared by artist and public, became an instrument of subversion by indirection.

Most caricaturists, however, abandoned this political guerrilla warfare and rechanneled their powers into the wider field of social description, where such political thrust as there was was safely present only in the form of overtones. (This same shift of emphasis had already occurred in English caricature, the significant difference being that it was a natural development, not taking place under the gun of threatened or imposed censorship.) ‘Emblematic types’ stood for whole classes. In the mime theatre Deburau’s Pierrot was transformed into an everyman of the Paris streets. Daumier’s versatile figure of Robert Macaire, ‘the quintessential con man’, originally a stage character satirising the July monarchy and its money men, became, as Baudelaire recalled, ‘the clear starting-point’ of the caricature of manners. Caricature ‘became the general satire of the citizenry. It impinged on the domain of the novel.’ Balzac, above all.

And so the art of comic representation became a day-by-day guide to the vanities and foibles of one’s fellow men and women, from shopkeepers and artisans on up. Another generic figure, Joseph Prudhomme, the middle-class embodiment of the complacent and banal, remained in a state of high visibility across the whole forty-year period, uttering said Gautier, ‘unstoppable waves of common-places and solemn stupidities’ both in the stage impersonations of his creator, Henry Monnier (who eventually became indistinguishable from his creation), and in Monnier’s own drawings. He was the Gallic ancestor of Martin Tupper and Mr Pooter, and one hears echoes of his fatuous sententiousness as late as Colonel Blimp.

Alongside these long-running emblematic figures there emerged, in the late 1830s, the physiologie which Balzac claimed to have inspired through his Physiologie du Mariage (1830): this was a one-franc paperback, with thirty to sixty engravings and (a new development, wedding the vocabularies of image and print) a series of pen portraits satirically describing various social groups – married couples, lovers, concièrges, doctors, lawyers, blue-stockings, students, kept women, café-frequenters, workers. Freely using easily recognisable physiognomic attributes as keys to character, these manuals of middle-class stereotypes, some 130 titles in all, sold half a million copies during their short vogue.

Many Englishmen, visiting Paris, bought and read these tongue-in-cheek contributions to the science of human understanding, and it is odd that despite all the attention that the Early Victorian social scene has enjoyed in recent years, nobody, so far as I know, has studied the impact in England of the physiologie (or the ‘natural history’, as it was sometimes called, with reference to Buffon’s celebrated taxonomy). It probably came too late to influence Dickens’s descriptions of neighbourhoods, occupations, amusements and social types in Sketches by Boz (note: ‘sketches’). But the much-written-about caricatural techniques in his novels may well have been affected by the French example – and thus indirectly by Lavater – and there is no question that Thackeray, who had lived in Paris when the physiologie with its prose vignettes was at the height of its popularity, conceived his Book of Snobs, among other writings, with it in mind. In fact, there was a brief burst of native physiologies in the late 1840s. The comic journalist Albert Smith, for example – the entertainer whose one-man ‘Ascent of Mont Blanc’ shows attracted standing-room-only crowds at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly for several seasons – published The Physiology of Evening Parties in 1846, and followed it up with a series of ‘natural histories’ of such types as ‘stuck-up people’, ballet girls, idlers on the town, and ‘gents’. The most explicit connections with physiognomy as a pictorial mode were found in cheap comic albums called generically ‘Faces of the People’. But it was in the pages of Punch, where John Leech and Dicky Doyle were the London counterparts of such prolific Parisian artists as Grandville and Gavarni, that the physiologie reached its largest English public. It was no accident that Punch was subtitled ‘the London Charivari’, and I recommend to any interested party a study of Punch’s indebtedness, in themes and techniques, to its Parisian contemporaries.

After the middle of the century, the presence of physiognomy in both fiction and caricature becomes harder to detect. Novelists either had begun to develop their own sophisticated styles of portraiture or had come to feel less obligation to describe (though few questioned the necessity of any description, as André Gide was later to do). The momentous arrival of photography made journalistic illustration largely redundant, and this, in collaboration with the whole broad tendency toward scientific observation, led artists to turn away from the social scene in favour of a more absorbing field of view, the drama of their private senses and sensibilities as recorded in impressionism. New languages in fiction and art replaced the Lavaterian lexicon of physical appearance and gesture. But it had left its substantial, though indecisive and in any event not always decipherable, mark on the realism of the 19th century.