Art Theory – Classification Of Features

If, however, the importance of duly and correctly developing the character and expression of the individuals represented in pictorial composition be fully acknowledged, it must also follow, as a necessary consequence, that whatever contributes to enable us to effect this object, in the surest and most satisfactory mode, demands every attention that can be given to it. Nothing, indeed, appears more completely, or more directly adapted to ensure the due expression of character and emotion through the delineation of the countenance, than arriving at a certain and exact knowledge of the mode in which, through the countenance, these peculiarities are developed; and the reducing this knowledge, as far as possible, to a regular and methodical system applicable to practical operation.

Character as regards its manifestation by the face, appears to depend mainly on two principles. 1. The special individual form of each particular feature. 2. The action and operation of these several features. Here also is to be borne in mind the relation in respect to its formation and general character and operation of each separate feature to the other features, and to the whole face. The same rule extends to the entire figure. The motion too of each part of the figure, and of the limbs, is to be considered.

Forms of features must be of various kinds, according to the character of the particular countenance, and of the different features belonging to it. These admit indeed of as complete a classification as do the several kinds of form and colour; and a system or grammar might be written as to the application and employment of these subjects of each sort. I see there-fore no reason why a complete classification should not be effected as regards the characteristics of the different features in the human countenance, and the various powers and qualities which each of them display, as perfect and ample in all respects as is the classification of colours in painting, or of different styles of rhyme and metre in poetry.

There can be no doubt, indeed, that a certain and specific individual peculiarity of character does attach to each single conformation of feature. Why should not this be analysed and arranged, as without such a process it is evident that no perfect delineation of character can be effected; while by this means such a representation may be accomplished, as complete as the imitation of nature in regard to her tints by the right ordering and application of colours ? In the portrayal of animal passions and feelings, this has already to a certain extent been attained, of which we have an example in ‘Le Brun’s Passions.’ Character doubtless admits of exactly the same classification and development. And indeed this has also been attempted, although not fully and systematically carried out, by Lavater, in his treatise on ‘ Physiognomy,’ illustrated by engravings from the works of the great masters, in which he evinces at any rate the practicability of such a plan as that which I propose, and which would form a complete artistical grammar for the painter of human nature.

The only idea of perfect form in any of the features or limbs, appears to be derived from what we observe in nature, as to the effect produced by particular forms. Those which seem most perfect, we adopt alone as the models for imitation, even where we are unable to define exactly in what their perfection consists.

The principal features in the human countenance as regards the expression and character given to it, are the nose, the mouth, and the eye. The first being the most prominent feature, its modulations and outline at once strike the attention, and in profile it characterizes the whole face. The form of the lips adds rather to the effect of the other features, than originates any expression. The eye gives character principally by the variations which it assumes. While at rest, it is the least, although in action the most expressive of all the features. The chin and the forehead only aid the other features, and are always passive.

Each feature may be varied in an almost infinite number of ways, and each variation affects the character of the countenance in some certain and particular manner. Every feature has, moreover, a character of its own, as has also every variation of each feature. And the principles which regulate these changes and characteristics, are as sure and immutable as those of any other branch of art, or any rule in anatomy. In Physiognomy, character is expressed by the formation of the features; passion by their action.

The English school of painting, and indeed those in general of modern times, are chiefly deficient in this point, which is doubtless the most important, and most exalted attainment with which art can be endowed, especially if it is to be regarded as representing human nature. Considering both the character and the value of this intellectual branch of the study of art, some certain and specific principles ought surely to be laid down for its regulation. In the works of Raphael, and of several of the greatest masters in the highest walk, but more especially in those of the former, this principle has been very fully, and indeed almost perfectly carried out.

There is no reason, indeed, why this very interesting and most important branch of the study of art should not be reduced to a regular system, forming as it in fact does the very basis and grammar of the most valuable and exalted, the intellectual department of the subject. Its principles, moreover, are as certain and as ascertainable as are those of any other kind of learning; and it is alone by this means that in any age or country, painting will be raised to the rank it is not only capable, but worthy of attaining, by proving itself adapted for the perfect representation of human nature.

We are wont on all occasions to judge of the character of individuals in the first instance by their countenance. In some faces, the physiognomy is very striking, and serves at once to convey to us notions of persons particularly endowed with certain intellectual or moral qualities. In the case of every one we are able to decide somewhat more or less by this mode. But if we thus form an opinion from viewing the features, shall we not in like manner reason from the representations of them in pictorial composition ; more especially as in the case of the latter, these contribute the only data afforded to us from which to draw our conclusions, while in the case of the former we may have opportunities of judging of them by their conversation, the reputation which they possess, or the works which they have produced?

If, moreover, the countenance affords us, as we all admit that it does, a real insight into, or leads us to form a correct opinion of the intellectual and moral character of any person, it must be owing to the conformation of the different parts of the face that this is the case ; and there must necessarily belong to each feature a particular conformation indicative of a particular character.

It is obvious, therefore, that the most complete and intimate acquaintance, not only with the subject generally, but with its leading and direct principles, ought to be possessed; and the rules for its attainment should be as definite and as extensive as are those which have been so carefully laid down upon a matter far less important, the attainment of manual dexterity in the art. A knowledge of physiognomy is in reality as essential to a painter as a knowledge of anatomy. Physiognomy is, indeed, the anatomy of the features, which express the character and emotions of the soul.

In a manner corresponding with the classification of the features of the human countenance for the purpose of effecting, upon strictly systematic principles, the representation of character and emotion in pictorial art ; might a classification of the general artistic characteristic features in other forms, objects and subjects, whether appertaining to architecture, music, acting, costume, or gardening be also attained, the practicability of which will at once, indeed, be both illustrated and admitted, if we allow these arts to be capable of being employed in common with painting and sculpture in the representation of human nature, or even of nature generally.