Art and Science: 13 Pseudoscience

James Gillray (–1815), Doublures of Characters; — or — striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy (1798), engraving, dimensions not known, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

In previous articles in this series, I have looked at examples of where art and science have brought benefit to one another. Here I consider what we now acknowledge to be two pseudosciences which have unfortunately been embraced by many artists: phrenology and physiognomy.

Physiognomy is the more ancient, and was first documented by the Greeks. It claims that you can assess personality or character from a person’s outward appearance, particularly their face. Phrenology took this a step further in claiming that mental traits can be predicted from the form of a person’s skull, particularly bumps on different parts of the cranial vault.

This is a dangerous area for visual artists who depict figures, particularly in narrative. Establishing the identity and role of each person in figurative painting often relies on using stereotypes of appearance, and can all too easily fall into the same traps as physiognomy and phrenology. Hieronymus Bosch’s Crowning with Thorns is a good example.

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Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Crowning with Thorns (c 1490-1500), oil on oak panel, 73.8 x 59 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Four men are shown around the head and body of Jesus Christ.

At the top left, a crossbowman dressed in a green cloak and wearing full armour on his right hand holds, in that hand, the crown of thorns, so as to place it on Christ’s head. This soldier has a steely look of determination, his lower jaw thrust forward, mouth closed. A crossbow bolt is tucked through the matching green turban on his head.

At the top right, an older man, whose right arm rests on Christ’s right shoulder, has a more concerned expression, his brows knitted, almost as if trying to reassure Christ. He wears a large black sheepskin hat with oak leaves and an acorn as a badge, a peculiar spiked leather collar which is buckled at his left ear, and in his left hand holds a birch rod.

At the lower right, another older man is seen in profile, looking up at Christ, and clutching at his white robe with both hands. This soldier has a prominent nose, and his brows are raised.

Was Bosch’s painting astute observation of humans, or did it just play on stereotypes and prejudice?

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Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Susanna and the Elders (1653), oil on canvas, 153.5 x 203 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Jacob Jordaens’ Susanna and the Elders from 1653 makes the pitfalls more obvious to the modern eye. Its wrinkled and edentulous elders are shown in the detail below.

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Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Susanna and the Elders (detail) (1653), oil on canvas, 153.5 x 203 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

All four actors – Susanna, the elders, and Daniel – were Israelites, thus Jewish. But with the rise of anti-Semitism across Europe, the elders have been used as figures in its propaganda. Jordaens’ Susanna looks very gentile, but his elders are caricatures of Jews, with hooked noses, and one wearing a Kippah.

In 1772, Johann Lavater codified what was essentially a pseudoscientific basis for racism and other forms of prejudice. Unfortunately, his writings were widely translated, and were enthusiastically adopted by many artists.

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Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon (1770-73), oil on canvas, 52 x 72 cm, The National Trust, Knole, England. Wikimedia Commons.

As far as I’m aware, this painting of Count Ugolino and his Children in the Dungeon is the only work by Joshua Reynolds taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773, nearly five hundred years after the death of the Count.

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Artist not known, Portrait of Ugolino della Gherardesca (1775-78), engraving in Johann Caspar Lavater’s Fragments of Physiognomy, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This slightly later copy was one of many images of the faces of the famous and infamous on which Lavater based his writings on physiognomy, which quickly became a self-fulfilling fantasy.

Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma exhibited 1783 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825
Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783), oil on canvas, 99.1 x 125.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by the Art Fund 1941), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fuseli-percival-delivering-belisane-from-the-enchantment-of-urma-n05304

Among those who rapidly adopted Lavater’s ideas was Henry Fuseli, as shown in his painting of Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma (1783), showing a narrative that the artist had invented for this painting. It appears to be one of a series, although only one other work has been identified as part of that, and that precursor is only known from a print of 1782. He also preceded this series with a single painting of Ezzelin and Meduna (1779), which refers to another unique narrative, but does not appear to have any associated works.

Fuseli provides the viewer with a rich array of ‘Gothic’ narrative elements from which to form their own account of the story. There are visions of faces in the distance on the left, chains leading to an unseen figure apparently manacled into a bed at the right, Percival swinging a sword above his head, to strike the cloaked figure of Urma in the left foreground, and a beautiful young woman (presumably Belisane) embraced by Percival’s left arm, kneeling on the floor.

The figures could have come from Lavater’s book.

The Good and Evil Angels 1795-?c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
William Blake (1757–1827), The Good and Evil Angels (1795–c 1805), colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 44.5 x 59.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/blake-the-good-and-evil-angels-n05057

William Blake was a contemporary who also fell under the spell of this pseudoscience. He constructed the two angels in his Good and Evil Angels (1795–c 1805) according to Lavater’s principles.

Shortly after Lavater’s physiognomy came phrenology, devised and publicised by Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim from 1796 onwards.

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James Gillray (–1815), Doublures of Characters; — or — striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy (1798), engraving, dimensions not known, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

James Gillray’s extraordinary engraving of Doublures of Characters from 1798 runs under the subtitle of “if you would know men’s hearts, look in their faces”, which is the seemingly compelling argument underlying Lavater’s claims. The images show ‘doubles’ consisting of opposition leaders in British politics at the time, matched with depictions of evil people. These are:

  • I: The Patron of Liberty – The Arch Fiend (Charles James Fox)
  • II: A Friend to his Country – Judas selling his Master (Richard Brinsley Sheridan)
  • III: Character of High Birth – Silenus debauching (The Duke of Norfolk)
  • IV: A Finished Patriot – The lowest Spirit of Hell (George Tierney)
  • V: Arbiter Elegantiarum – Sixteen-string Jack (Sir Francis Burdett, Bt)
  • VI: Strong Sense – A Baboon (The Earl of Derby)
  • VII: A Pillar of the State – A Newmarket Jockey (The Duke of Bedford)

This circularity of argument pervades physiognomy.

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William Powell Frith (1819–1909), The Derby Day (detail) (1856-58), oil on canvas, 140.5 x 264 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Among those artists who succumbed to this new pseudoscience, with a liberal dash of Lavater, was William Frith. This can be seen in his stereotypical figures in The Derby Day (1856-58), a detail of which is shown above. The young farmer and his wife at the left, those in top hats, and the two confidence tricksters, all conform to our darkest expectations.

It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that physiognomy and phrenology went into decline, and even then Sir Francis Galton tried to classify people according to their appearance, using composite photography.