Physiognomy; study of it in works of art.—Movements of expression, their seat.—Colouring of the skin; paleness, redness.—Expression of the muscles; effort, muscles of the face.—Physiognomy of the senses.—Expression of the eyes, vision, easy or difficult, blindness.—Expression in the act of hearing, easy or difficult, hearing of an orator, musical hearing.—Expressions of smell and taste.—Expressions relating to the touch.
Physiognomy is generally considered as the expression of the features of the face, but it is not so limited in its elements. Attitude, repose or action, fulness or slenderness of form, proportion, bold or graceful relief, and lastly, health or disease have, in the entire contour of the body, a signification which completes that of the face. Physiognomy, therefore, is the expression which form and motion give to the body.
In the Caryatides of the temple of Erectheus, we admire the calmness and grandeur, the majesty of the draperies, the simple and grave lines of the figures which support without effort the marble that seems not to weigh upon them. In the Caryatides of Puget at Toulon, we see the display of power in the violently contracted muscles, in the arms which seek to relieve the head from the burden, under which the whole body stiffens, and is about to succumb!
Compare a Silenus to the Farnese Hercules. In the old friend of Bacchus, the form is heavy, obese, and flaccid; it is the abjectness of drunkenness; in the other, the powerful muscles, the firm proud attitude, the noble bearing, declare the tamer of monsters and of vices. The Diana Huntress, with her sure and rapid step, is the enemy of idleness and repose; her manner is severe, and human passion has never throbbed in her virgin breast. The Venus Anadyomene, graceful, timid, uncertain in manner, shows much more of feeble humanity.
It is to this profound sense of physiognomy in the great artists that we owe the lively emotion which the sight of their master-pieces produces, and the ancients do not, in our judgment, merit the reproach cast upon them for the want of expression in their heads.
The Greeks, for whom statuary was especially a monumental art, gave to their faces the calm and dignity of gods, rather than human passions; therefore the action was quiet, the lines simple, and the expression of the head in harmony with that of the body; but when they turned to dramatic subjects, the few examples which remain enable us to judge that they were not less admirable in works of this nature.
They no doubt guarded against empty grimaces, and it was principally in action that they placed the expression; but can we not read disdainful anger on Apollo's lip? and is not pride stamped on the features of the Venus of Milo? does not watchfulness careless of danger look from the eyes of the Gladiator, and love, almost paternal, rest on the simple, spiritual head of the Faun and Child? Do we not feel a mothers pain in the Niobe, see the suffering and the prayer in the look of the Laocoon? The sculptors of the Renaissance imposed the same rule upon themselves before the works of antiquity were revealed to them. They were followed also by the painters, although for them these rules were less inflexible, and yielded more to details in an art more nearly allied to living nature.
The artist finds in anatomical physiology, and in physiognomy, useful hints and precise principles; but he rightly abstains from a rigorous and servile application of them, for though the physician may find it important to know the exact function of a certain muscle, the sculptor and the painter must confine himself to the true but not realistic expression caused by its contraction. To go beyond this, which is very easy, is to arrive at that repugnant reality which certain masters of the Spanish school have not hesitated to adopt.
Caught from nature by photography, physiological expression belongs to science, and is invaluable to it; but the artist, like the poet, remembers that his task is to suggest only, leaving that to be divined which could not be said or delineated without revolting the spectator.
The movements from which the physiognomy results are always harmonious, and it is to their unity and concordance that our impressions are due. The least negligence in this respect shocks us in a picture like a false note in an orchestra, while our admiration is unbounded for a work of art in which nothing is forgotten.
Lethiere paints Brutus at the execution of his sons; the face and attitude of the consul express only merciless severity, the folds of the toga are faultless, but the contracted hands reveal the agony of the father under the inflexibility of the judge. David represents him to us at the moment when the bodies of his sons are brought to him. The expression of the head is fierce, the feet, the left hand, and the whole body are strongly contracted; the right hand alone is carelessly bent, and takes no part in this convulsive state.