Physiognomy 102: The Origins of Physiognomancy

This obsession with personal shape and form is something that everyone is responsible for at least some point in his/her life.  During the earliest years of this profession, this obsession with looks and appearance had its own quirks at times.  These quirks were due to the very subjective and cultural nature by which we define and judge our self, and our self portrait.  


 Medical complaints and their remedies, from John Aderne of Newark’s “De Arte phisicali et de Cirurgia”, England,1412.

In the simplest sense looking at your own self-portrait is very much looking in the mirror, or a reflective storm window of a house or store.  The less shiny that mirror or storm window is, the more likely you are going to take a quick glance at it as you walk on buy, just to see what you look like today, just to see how good or bad your portrait may appear to others.  It is easier to do a spot check in the mirror or reflecting glass in order to check your wardrobe, eye make-up, or matching shoe-dress pattern.  But when you get a physiognotrace done, you have be ready to spend more time than expected, not studying your portrait and physique, but instead answering to other people’s impressions of who and what you are once they walk by this piece of art.  To yourself and members of your direct family, this rendering, fake or not, may be more flattering or non-flattering than expected.   Sometimes, the best place to display such a family heirloom is in the attic, alongside great, great grandpa’s estate papers.

“Grandma’s Grandma from Germany”

But these illustrations were often believed to display your state of mind and your health.  This impression of your body and face is very different from what a physician for the time might tell you.  It is very unlikely you will look at yourself in the mirror if your doctor told you to do it, just to see how manic you are according to the folds on your forehead or the crow’s feet developing around your eyes.  The crevasses of your face may not be as revealing as the pits, bumps and folds of your palm, or so you think.   And as for the physiognomy of your entire body, the practice of drawing it was not an artisan’s skill meant to be engaged in for too long a time.  You could in fact reveal too much about your heritage and personality.  In terms of physique, emotional status and political posturing, you are perhaps better off staying clear of the artisan’s shop for as long as you possibly can.

One typically does not expect a regular doctor to spend more than a minute glancing at your body in such detail as a physiognomotracer, trying to make heads or tails of your body’s physiognomy.  This behavior that doctors might engage in at times tends to be more a skill that is left for the community’s physiognotracer to engage in.  In fact in the best of cases, a physiognotracer will not just draw your silhouette or your detailed facial features from either side, he or she might also have the luxury needed to produce an entire illustration of who you are, from top to bottom, front to back, in such a way that even from afar, within your own household, reveals your entire persona and health to other members of the household and your visitors.  This means that who you are is now portrayed intimately to your closest friends and relatives, in a way that even your physician may have never know some of these things about you unless he is a frequent visitor of your home.  Even your spouse could learn something from such artistic renderings, things previously not realized before about you.  Your arrogance, your desires, your sneakiness, are all revealed by such features according to the most learned physiognomists.

Oh no!  Maybe she will notice how short I am!

For the physiognomotracer, his or her limitation to making a few dollars a day for this kind of work depends upon just how much your health and personality could be tied to his final product.  Just who and what he or she makes of you as part of this mutual endeavor could make or break your occupation and your role in society.  It is the physiognotracer who will answer everything about you and your behaviors that a regular doctor would not normally be able to provide insights and advice for.  Like the former astrologers once so popular, or the local palmist, the physiognotracer will tell you about your past and your future, and usually how best to behave outside the work, church, social or public setting.  In other words, if you are a close follower of such a sequel to chiromancy, you allow the physiognotracer to tell you who you really are, so you can compare these insights with those half-truths that your friends are telling you.  Like the past tasseographer or Bohemian mystic residing down the street, he or she will probably tell you the type of spouse you should probably try to get married to, how much money you will make in your life, what your best occupational choice will be.


Physiognomancy became very popular in the United States and especially along the Hudson River due to the French Revolution.  If you were a sophisticiated Frenchman or Frenchlady fleeing for your life during this time, more than likely you had just a few places to go, one of these was the United States, and if you made your way to the States, either Philadelphia or New York City. 

Once again, it was the yellow fever epidemics of these two large cities that had everything to do with how physiognontracing came to the Hudson Valley.  The two large cities were the preferred place to settle.  Along with the people, there were arts and crafts, knowledge and ingenuity, excitement and the lack of boredom that accompanied any day out in eitehr of these two big cities.  Such a life was fairly different from that of the much smaller communities established further inland, along the Hudson River in the case of New York.  Were it not for the yellow fever, the Hudson Valley may well have retained its glamor mostly as an agricultural town satisfying the growing food needs of a growing population of rich and entrepreneurial families residing just a little down south.  The glamor of country side living and its health however had a major influence on where the New York City folks would spend their recreational time, many of whom had many such hours of life to fill their own personal needs with.   It was one thing to take a jaunt through the countryside in order to see its natural holdings and to engage in some health recreational activities like an equestrian escapade or a fox hunt.  It was quite a different thing to move your business into these neck of the woods, which ultimately became something a number of city immigrants were ultimately forced to do.

In the first few years of Poughkeepsie history for example we see artisans and highly skilled craftsmen advertising the sell of wares so unique to the region that at first you are taken aback by their presence and offerings as a local commodity.  Instead of a book on how to raise corn or dairy cattle there are books on learning the French language or how to read and write the classical music of famous musicians like Beethoven or Bach.   Whereas once upon a time you could barely find the talent needed to have a talented brass band performing in the local pub on main street, now all of a sudden their were homes, restaurants, and private stages where a uniquely skill pianist or violinist could perform, all of this by the way under the beliefs that such endeavors were not only great for the soul and spirit, calming our passions that at times got the best of us, and taming any anger we had the day before towards our relative or neighbors, these recreational activities were engaged in to help our body get better.  We came out a healthier person once such a classic was heard for the first time.  Knowledge of such music and art were on our side, but experience were far, far better than just knowing that such recreational treats could exist.

In Poughkeepsie, French culture became an everyday experience for the first time by the early 1800s.  These French influences filled our households with new arts and musical instruments to try to learn on.  They filled our library with new books and new knowledge about the natural world previously missing from the local traditions.  They filled our imagination with new ideas on how to improve life itself in terms of relationships, health, recreation and best of all finances.  Now add to this some unique talents that the French had that previous cultures, even French Canadian, failed to provide to the Hudson Valley during its earlier years and decades of development. 

Napolean, by Needlepoint

Based on the history of France and United States since the Revolutionary War, the United States was the best place to go.  Like any new country opening its doors for the first time to such a large amount of commerce and wealth migrating in, there is this sort of laissez faire attitude about what would happen during the next few years once these new settlers arrived.  This meant that the migration of French philosophers into this country could offset the otherwise self-absorbed philosophies that local people had abided by about such things as how to live, what to devote you life to, how to modify your external appearances.  If you decided to dress like the Frenchman or Lady, you could conceal much of who and what you are to your friends.  This was good news for anyone trying to hide a change of figure brought about by age, or the swelling and obvious redness that could be detected across the room for anyone with gout or rheumatic knees.  Physiognotracing was meant to be true about your physique, but that is not the intention of this artisan’s skill.  Its intention is to reveal who you are on the inside, and by doing this, making anybody who didn’t know you before now be able to do so.  This way of marketing of this craft led some people to become the experts in interpreting the results of this art nouveau.  It also made way for similar crafts to finally take shape and form, such as phrenology, the knowledge of facial type and personality, and the interaction of each of these with health and life in the every day household.   Neither Gall nor Spurzheim could ever disagree with this goal being set forth by the artists leading the way for these changes in society.

Napolean Posing

So in replacement for the old style of painting out there, sculpted form was out, meticulous mathematical style was in.  Along with learning French, learning to cook an omelette or brioche, indulging in croissants avec paté, listening to a band perform a section of Les deux journées, ou Le porteur d’eau by Luiogi Cherubini , reading jean-Jacques Rousseau, or sampling the recently arrived Parisian newspaper, you could engage in this additional little bit of French culture on the side, even as a ruralite in the up-river towns of Poughkeepsie, Hudson and Troy.   The diffusion of this new culture made its way against the outflowing river tides, heading straight up the river to Troy in just a year or two.  It would take still another year or two for people to know and fully understand the differnce between the physiognotracer and the common artist.

An alternative to the detailed physiognotrace: a primitive oil on canvas portrait such as the above by artist George G. Hartwell (1815-1901)

A physiognotracer is both an artist and a scientist.  Someone who more makes a more real life portrait of your face and inner workings than any local commonplace artisan located just down the road.  Due to his equipment, the physiognotracer has a skill that requires intimate knowledge of the tool he has just purchased or invented on his own.  The physiognograph (with the more official French spelling “physionograph”, enabled people like Pallet to combine the philosophy and psychology of physiognomy, with the skills of an artisan, to produce a partial or full body portrait of your client, producing something that depicts and symbolizes your purpose in life, and even some of these times your fate.  

In an early 19th century sense, according to the Hudson author “Peter Pallet” (possibly a nom-de-plume), he was a limner, a physiognotracer who can illuminate your household with an image of who you are.  With his skills he could produce for you your own personal diary in the form of an illuminated portraiture.  His primary skill was that of a limner, his secondary skill was that of a psychologist, with an the ability to illustrate exactly who you are in fine, sharp detail. 

Guess Who – #2

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