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section heading icon     physiognomy

This page considers character identification on the basis of physiognomy (ie the shape of an individual's face).

It covers -

It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding Identity and Biometrics.


Pre-industrial cultures often assumed that there was some relationship between an individual's character (eg honesty, cruelty, generosity, aggression) and face, with references in folktales, legal documents, dramas and other literature regarding "villainous appearance" or "cruel nature" unintentionally revealed through an unguarded glance.

That assumption reflected notions that the face was "the window of the soul" and that a twisted or evil nature was generally signalled by a 'distorted' or 'ugly' face, with -

  • the virtuous, noble and brave having handsome features
  • evil deeds and bad thoughts causing disfigurement of a face.

Physiognomy was just a hop, skip and jump away from 'blaming the victim', assuming that the 'ugly' are bad and that the 'deformed' are inwardly distorted. Dwarves, it was claimed, were by nature peevish, sly and greedy. The blackness of an African's skin reflected the blackness - or savagery - of his character.

Physiognomic theorists seized on particular attributes. Barthelemy Cocles' 1533 Physiognomonia thus warned that

  • people with snub noses are vain, untruthful, unstable, unfaithful and seducers
  • thick, bulbous noses ends belong to persons who are insensitive and swinish
  • sharp-tipped noses belong to the irascible - those easily provoked (like dogs)
  • rounded, large, obtuse noses to the magnanimous and lionlike
  • large and outstanding ears indicate a tendency to chatter

Michel de Montaigne's De la phisionomie scoffed at such nonsense, noting that virtue was not necessarily written on the face and that some exemplary characters - such as Socrates - were notable for their physical ugliness.

Swiss proto-romantic Johann Lavater (1741-1801) sought to systematise traditional physiognomy, notably in his 1775 Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und und Menschenliebe.

Lavater argued that 'moral character' could be reliably discerned by observation of involuntary facial features, with a close and unalterable correspondence between the geography of the face - ears, eyes, nose, brow, distance between lips and chin, and so forth - and that individual's appetites, self-control, fears, diligence and honesty.

That geography was independent of expression (which Lavater characterised as pathognomy), for example a person's grimace, tears, laughter or smile. A disciple of Lavater would, it was claimed, accordingly be able to determine the person's true character through momentary observation (even where the person was an experienced liar with a strong incentive to engage in deception). The same disciple would not be misled by fine words, flash clothing or an impressive title, being instead able to 'read' the real person. Lavater assumed that those best equipped to read character would themselves be handsome, with inner beauty, wisdom and virtue being reflected in a comely appearance.

Lavater's claims were attractive in an era marked by the same receptiveness of pop science (or merely fashion) as our own time, anxiety about social status, uncertainty about financial or other bona fides and dificulties in readily identifying whether an individual was whom she/he claimed to be and what that person had done in the past.

The publishing boom of the late Enlightenment thus featured a vogue for physiognomic primers and lectures, alongside mumbo jumbo such as mesmerism and magnetic beds.

One example was Della Porta's illustrated Pocket Lavater of 1817, which claimed to enable readers to quickly discriminate between the physiognomy of a trustworthy man of business, a rogue, a wastrel and a drunkard. George Brewer offered The juvenile Lavater, or, A familiar explanation of the passions of Le Brun in 1815, a sort of Dummies Guide to Physiognomy. Peers claimed that

The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by it's genius, courage and activity

or that

All the ugly peoples are more or less barbarians, beauty is the inseparable companion of the most civilized nations

The same vogue was apparent in several generations of sculpture, painting and drawing, with artists aspiring to represent ideal types (in a prevision of quackery from Bachofen and CJ Jung) and to illustrate the 'good' and the 'bad'. Physiognomy strengthened the fashion for freehand silhouettes and the physiognotrace, a mechanical device for drawing a profile.

Criminologist Cesare Lombroso, soothing Victorian anxieties with nonsense about the "criminal classes", "atavism" and "born criminals" claimed that the latter were detectible through -

1 Deviation in the head size and shape from type common to race and region from which the criminal came.
2 Asymmetry of the face.
3 Eye defects and peculiarities.
4 Excessive dimensions of the jaw and cheek bones.
5 Ears of unusual size, or occasionally very small, or standing out from the head as do the chimpanzee.
6 Nose twisted, upturned, or flattened in thieves, or aquiline or break-line in murderers, or with a tip rising like a peak from swollen nostrils.
7 Lips fleshy, swollen and protruding.
8 Pouches in the cheek like those of some animals.
9 Peculiarities of the palate, such as are found in some reptiles, and cleft palate.
10 Chin receding, or excessively long, or short and flat, as in apes.
11 Abnormal dentition.
12 Abundance, variety, and precocity of wrinkles.
13 Abundance of the hair, marked by characteristics of the hair of the opposite sex.

In reality, of course, there is not a necessary relationship between character and 'facial architecture'. Thieves - among the 'criminal classes' or otherwise - do not all have receding chins, five o-clock shadows, 'simian jaws' and beady eyes. (Sweaty hands, smelly feet and limp handshakes are also not a reliable signifier.) The size and/or shape of the ears does not provide an accurate predictor of honesty and diligence, contrary to the belief of figures such as J Edgar Hoover and Henry Ford. A large nose does not signal a profound appetite for money, an aptitude for high finance (legitimate or otherwise) and a tendency towards sexual predation.

Physiognomy is, in a word, nonsense - a set of anecdotes, absurdities and ethnic stereotypes disguised as a coherent and verifiable scientific theory that can be readily applied by specialist and novice alike.

Unsurprisingly it has fallen out of favour, although some of the stereotypes linger among individuals in the public and private sectors.

     physiognomy and law

Physiognomy is not recognised by Australian law as a science or as a professional discipline. Like the pseudo-sciences discussed in the following pages it is not forbidden by Australian statute or common law and a cursory search of the web or 'alternative medicine' magazines will thus discover people engaging in physiognomy on a commercial or amateur basis and a market for sale of physiognomy charts, primers and other items.

Use of physiognomy to deny a job, a promotion or other opportunity to a person would unsurprisingly breach one or more Commonwealth and state/territory anti-discrimination statutes. That legislation for example emphasis employment selection on the basis of inherent requirements of the job, with courts accordingly unlikely to be impressed by claims that a physiognomic reading of an applicant proved that the person was lazy, stupid, cowardly or adulterous.


Historical explorations include About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz (Detroit: Wayne State Uni Press 2004) by Richard Gray, Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) by Lucy Hartley, Windows of the Soul: The Art of Physiognomy in European Culture, 1470-1780 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2005) by Martin Porter, Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul: Polemon’s physiognomy from classical antiquity to medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2006) by Simon Swain, Physiognomics in the Ancient World (Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 1969) by Elizabeth Evans, Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy: A study in the history of ideas (Berne: Peter Lang 1979) by John Graham, Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2006) by Alan Steinweis, Physiognomy in Profile: Lavater's impact on European culture (Newark: Uni of Delaware Press 2005) edited by Melissa Percival & Graeme Tytler and In the Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1998) by Vicki Bruce & Andrew Young.

Works on iconography include Hitler's Face: The Biography of an Image (Uni of Pennsylvania Press 2005) by Claudia Schmölders, 'Physiognomical Theory in Renaissance Heroic Portraits' by Peter Meller in The Renaissance and Mannerism: Studies in Western Art (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1963), E.H Gombrich's 'On Physiognomic Perception' in Meditations on a Hobby-Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon 1963) and 'The Mask and the Face: The perception of physiognomic likeness in life and art’' in The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1972), The Artist as Anthropologist: The representation of type and character in Victorian art (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1989) by Mary Cowling, Physiognomy in the European Novel. Faces and fortunes (Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 1982) by Graeme Tytler

Studies of racism and physiognomy include 'Lavater, Lichtenberg and the Physiognomy of the Black' by Sander Gilman in Blackness without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the Black in Germany (Boston: Beacon Press 1982), A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and caricature in 19th-century Paris (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1982) by Judith Wechsler, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press 1971) by L Perry Curtis.

For recent revivals see 'In your face: facial metrics predict aggressive behaviour in the laboratory and in varsity and professional hockey players' by Justin Carré & Cheryl McCormick in 275(1651) Proceedings of the Royal Society (2008) 2651-2656, Reading Faces: Window to the Soul? (Boulder: Westview 1997) by Leslie Zebrowitz and 'Physiognomy, Phrenology and the Temporality of the Body' by Richard Twine in 8(1) Body & Society (2002) 67-88.

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version of November 2008
© Bruce Arnold
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