Sunday, July 17, 2016

Physiognomy: Comparing People to Animals

Can you guess a person's personality by the shape or appearance of their head? Do some people look like animals, or some animals look like people?

Those were questions asked by people in the field of Physiognomy. Here Italian scholar and playwright Giambattista Della Porta compares a sharp-featured man with a hound, in De humana physiognomonia, in 1586.

To Della Porta, another man's face resembles that of a bull. (More examples from Della Porta are at Public Domain Review.

The question kept appearing since the days of the ancients: Does the face determine someone's destiny, or does the face reflect the life they've lived? 

Leonardo rejected the first proposition but accepted the second. He said, "Lines caused by facial expressions could indicate personality traits. For example, he wrote that "those who have deep and noticeable lines between the eyebrows are irascible."

Charles Le Brun
In the late 1600s, French painter Charles Le Brun did a series of drawings of physiognomic heads, comparing a variety of metrics such as the axis of the eyebrows and the angle of the eyes, and he drew parallels between they faces of certain human characters and those of animals. 

He was also fascinated with the way emotions played out on the face in humans and animals. Le Brun was influenced by the idea that the area around the eyebrows were of extreme importance, based on the discovery by Descartes of the pineal gland at the base of the brain. Descartes believed that spot was the seat of the soul.

The interest in this topic lasted well into the 19th century. In 1866, James W Redfield published Comparative physiognomy: or, Resemblances between men and animals

Though in recent times physiognomy has been discredited in scientific and academic circles, the idea still surfaces in the work of artists who design anthropomorphic (human-animal) characters


Warren JB said...

The problem with Della Porta and Le Brun's drawings - let alone the theory - is that in emphasising the similarity to animals, their human subjects look *in*human. Like something out of 'The Island of Doctor Moreau'.

Maywyn said...

Sharing a gene pool, its no wonder faces of humans and animals sometimes look similar. Think of camels and parakeets and people with similar facial lines. And for sure, I've known some curmudgeons that do resemble bulldogs. :)

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Patricia Wafer said...

This is so interesting, thanks. My very favorite artist for portraying cats with human expressions was the late English Artist Susan Herbert. Even the way she portrayed their tails made it look like what a human would do with it if he had a tail. A copy of her Grim Reeper cat from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" is my favorite and hangs in the bathroom as my "memento mori". It reminds me and makes me laugh at the same time.