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Charles Le Brun's Physiognomy

Charles Le Brun's - Physiognomy

Charles Le Brun was the most influential French painter of the 17th century. In 1664 Louis XIV appointed Le Brun the first royal painter and in charge of the royal collection of paintings. In 1668 Le Brun presented at the Royal Academy his lecture on Physiognomy: a comparison of human facial expressions with those of animals. It was supported by Descartes' theory of the brain as the seat of the mind, in order to show how human physical features are reflected in facial expression. Le Brun demonstrated this in a large number of paintings.

Physiognomy is the wisdom of the face, the definition of a person's character according to the appearance of his face. Le Brun presented the full range of embodiments in paintings of animal and human heads, pointing out the characteristics that indicate natural tendencies. The purpose of physiognomy was to judge personality by facial features.

But Le Brun did not content himself with comparing the features of a human face with those of animals in his paintings. In most of his comparative paintings, Le Brun tended to humanize the animals and detract from the humanity of people. The comparisons to animals were based on a popular theory by Giovanni Battista Della Porta (Della fisionomia dell'huomo), which itself was based on a pseudo-Aristotelian theory that inferred human nature from its resemblance to an animal. The important part of Le Brun's theory deals with the heads of ancient legislators and philosophers and is most relevant for artists.

Le Brun based the diagnosis of human character on one leading organ in the face. All the writers on the subject were of the belief that animal traits were established facts: donkeys are not sensitive to pain, deer, cat and rabbit are shy, bull is strong, lion is brave and noble and so on. Some of the features were crystallized by observation and others were simply stereotypes taken from proverbs. There were also some traits, like the nobility of the lion, that were born out of the physiognomy judgment itself.

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