Physiognomy 301:  Physiognomy and Personality: A Maturing Theory

The theory underlying Physiogonomy, and the physiognomancy it helped develop before art of physiognotracing was developed are ancient.   Perhaps the most famous physiognomist of all of history was Giambattista della Porte of John the Baptist of Porta.  In the herbal medicine world Porta is well know for his phytognomics (“plant”, “knowing”) writings, in which plant form is linked to plant uses.  Porta’s theory was that everything in nature had forms that interrelated with one another.   A plant with a curved flowering tip resembling a scorpion’s tale was meant to treat scorpion bites.  A plant with a leaf that represented the bumpy surface of a dog’s tongue was meant to treat the dog bite and the rabies it could result in.   A plant with a fine filamentous darn black stem resembling a varicose vein, could be used to treat the same in older people. 

Giambattista della Porta (John the Baptist Porta) (1535?-1615)

Porta also had similar essays produced detailing the gnomics of the human body.

File:De humana physiognomonia libri IIII - NLM NIH - page 19.jpg

De Humana Physiognomia, 1586

All of Porta’s work was completed by about 1625, and his theories adopted by physicians and philosophers alike over the next century or two.  These adaptations of gnomics varied from one period of popularity to the next, always with a new angle to the underlying philosophy. or new theory regardings its best use.   Science and philosophy weren’t the only professions to make good use of this philosophy, physiognomy also became a traditional day to day concept found buried amongst numerous writings ranging from the works of basic artists, to people engaged in story-telling like Shakspeare, to people engaged in the legal professions like Sheriffs and attorney trying to identify some murderer or crazy man responsible for unknowingly causing the deaths of many livestock or the burning of barns in the neighborhood.

As the theory for human thought and behavior evolved, physiognomy never really went away.  So long as the soul and mind were kept distinct from each other, and considered features not completely attached to the physical make up of a being–animal or person–it was believed that form dictated your behavior, and that changes in form provided us with insights into how your behaviors in the physical world were interacting with your personality and experiences.  Once again, we find this very pseudoscientific philosophy beginning to emerge in the Hudson Valley that was different from what it was a century earlier.  During late 1700s and early 1800s, Erasmus Darwinianism took hold  as we began to classify the ways in which lifeforms related to each other.  This preceded those true Darwinist beliefs we are all so familiar with, the product of his grandson Charles Darwin, literally two very different beliefs situated two generations apart (Erasmus was Charles’s grandfather).  Erasmus approach seemed more like Porta’s  method of classifying and interpreting animals and human and their behaviors, with physiological state and health added subconsciously into some of the logic used to justify his taxonomic differences.   Erasmus Darwin only sought to classify, not explain the underlying physiological and philosophical reasons for these group differences.   He left this latter task up to those interpreting his rationale for categorizing life and non-life in the physical world.  

Following Erasmus’s work however were the work of Jean-Baptist Lamarck and Jean Gaspard Lavater.  Whereas the old school of thought in physiognomy was that bodyform dictated who you were, Lamarck suggested that this form could be changed, and when it was, it was usually a result of your body adapting to it local setting.  For example, were you to move to a new environmental setting, your body could change into something that tolderated the new environmental stresses upon your physical flesh.  Sometimes these changes took place in you, but usually they were apssed on to your children, making your children more capable than you of surviving in this new living setting.  The classic example of this in the animal world is that the calves of a Giraffe were born with their necks longer because the Giraffe might have otherwise become extinct by eaten itself into extinction due to the overconsumption of the tree leaves its species was dependent upon.  Giraffes developed their longer neck to have an advantage over others by being able to reach the high, more delicated and nutritions leaves of tree topics filled with densely leaved limbs.  This process did not occur in a single lifetime so much as it happened over a generation or two (like Darwinian thought).  The parents suffering from periodic starvation produced kids with longer necks, who in turn kept their family and race alive, in the Lamarckian sense.

Lavater applied these behavioral belief to the humand body, and in particular the shape of our face.  Lavater’s philosophy wasn’t as straight forward as Lamarck’s.  Just because someone had a long protuberant nose didn’t mean he or she underwent the same natural processes favoring the selection of the giraffe’s long neck.  There were more indirect, humanistic features that Levater assigned to these outstanding physiognomics.  Behavior was attached to form, along with the dramatization of how specific human personalities often seemed to be related to specific attitudes, like ‘the long nose and the witch versus grinch complex’ of many past fairytales.      

If we convert this rationale to the physiognomist’s  perspective and how the common people perceive these judgments of character, we find much of the philosophy related to inter-generational changes unmodified.  Somebody’s kid could perhaps be born with shorters fingers and a smaller nose due to the parents sufferings living  in a new and much colder setting which the family had not yet fully adapted to.  Likewise, a person being raised in this environment could engage in such non-accomodating practices over time in this family setting, to the extent that he/she caused himself to undergo changes in physiognomy due to his/her unhealthy living practices, and once he/she gave birth to members of the next generation, these new younger ones demonstrated such problems in character even more.    

All of this philosophy in turn was being developed when some true biological events were happening which led to all of these perceptions to be developed about people, people’s character and facial-corporeal form.  Inbreeding was the rule for members of family of royalty during the time.  From about 1625 to 1750 in New York Colonial history, the amount of intermarrying in families made it possible for some terrible health-related consequences to emerge in the Hudson Valley setting.  It was not unusual for cousins to be married, with the two sometimes too close in biological (genetic) history to produce “potentially healthy” children.     These children had predispositions, which would display themselves at any point in time as the child grew up.  Were the “poorly gifted” child lucky enough to make it to early adulthood, enabling him/her to begin to look for a spouse, his/her physiognomy could define the social fate–would a wedding actually happen or not?  The longer the wait, the more likely a non-interfamily wedding might take place. 

Likewise sinful behaviors would result in nature’s (God’s) punishments.  Onanism turned you into a weak, decrepid looking old-man and beast, like a skinny bear searching for just one more place to lie for your next and final rest.  Criminal activities gave you that large bulging eye ridge beneath the brows.   The micropsia (smaller eyes) you developed, or which became more apparent as you got older, was due to your sneaky, unsocial behaviors.   Then there were the times that nature fooled us about this belief we had for interpreting facial and body forms in terms of health, hygiene and virility. 

According to the theory for the time, most outcasts from the family during this time would have been the physiognomonical misfits.  But in spite of being branded an outcast, you could still be like otehrs in your family and be very smart.  You may have evolved into a misfit, but you still inherited that family trait.   In terms of inherited looks, something was lacking, making you were either too tall, too chubby, or too healthy.  Your hair could have been blonde or albino instead of brunette (forget the underlying reasons for this, heritage is heritage, but lacked all the genetic proof of becoming blonde, just the witnessed proofs absent of gentlemanly behaviors and chivalry).   Yet, somehow, you overcome all these God-given curses in life and proceed on to become someone important.  Thus begins the success of your new (or renovated) occupation.

AND AS YOUR PHYSIOGNOMY SHOWS  . . . !     For more on this Catastrophist-Creationist and anti-Lamarckian doctor see

Your misshapen form in turn is what makes you who you are!?   So be it.   A mother of a short, squat family of Anglican descent might state to her husband–’Are you kidding!   He’s a giant!  He has long arms and legs, appears sanguine not phlegmatic like you and me, and has a tall, skinny head.  He’s better off tending the sails or cattle than signing our next contract or deed!  But to the father, the son is still an example of our family, and has to live in such honor.

Applying this to the late 18th and early 19th century physiognotracer of the Hudson Valley, a physiognotracer might hear these lines about someone every day during the course of work.  As the relatives walk by, and stop and stare at this work, they begin to apply it to themselves and their relatives.  One day, you might be told about a particular member in need of such an evalaution of character.  You thus come to learn more about someone as a neighbor fills you in, and a coworker or associate with the experience of working alongside that character fills in the missing infirmation you needed to understand that person’s character.  Then the big day comes, and your area asked to make a portrait of that individual.  By then, you know more about the individual than anything that may have been provided by the local paper alone.  You have some personal insights, and tell the individual about himself/herself while he/she sits there victim to your every skill in art and language.  Now, you are no longer an outcast, or a misfit, you become someone whose innermost characters have been finally revealed.

The Physiognotracing of the Hudson Valley precedes the similar practice that came to be an important part of Hudson Valley history by 1850–phrenology.  Whereas the silhouette flat or planar approach to understanding the person, and the physiognotrace when performed in no silhouette form by including the three-dimensional details of a person’s face and head shape, phrenology added one more level of complexity to the earlier versions of this unique form of study of human behavior.  For phrenology, the bumps of the head became equivalent to and as meaningful as each crease, mound , bump or pit identified on your hand by a palmist.   A lateral portrait of a phrenological skulls details what limited value for reading and interpretation that the drawing of silhouette form provided both the prognosticist artisan and his/her subject with. 

The evolution of phrenology from physiognotrace required time to develop since a number of major changes in theory and philosophy had to take place and begin make sense to the future  propagators of this new and more modern way of interpreting people.  The primary founder of this tradition in the European-American sense was Professor Gall, whose followers were as helpful to his practice as just one or two public lecturers were to mesmerism, about to be renamed hypnotism, at about this same time in Hudson Valley-American history.    

One West Point lecturer would ultimately have published one of the first detailed essays on this topic around 1815-1820.  I can hear the responses to this statement now–a military college?  West Point?

Like many of the sciences, the military became the first to make use of this new line of special skills.  Members of the military were cautious enough to avoid falling for any of Mesmer’s teachings regarding the stars and people’s behaviors.  But the possibility of influences generated within the body, as a matter of fate, was very much an acceptible theory.    They were adequately using these teachings to describe General George Washington’s behaviors and intents.  Now it was time to apply these same skills to better understand our chief enemies, those in charge of the enemy’s forces.   That was a skill that West Point graduates needed to know.

But it would take reintroduction of Gall’s teachings several times over to make it become an everyday topic of discussion at the typical family dinner table.    The initiation of this new trade as an ally to medicine began in the 1830s by visting French lecturers once again, and a few years later became highly successfully taught and practiced nationally (as far west as the Nation really went at this time) by about 1845.   This set the stage for the Fowler movement that took to the valley some time around 1850 to 1855.  [A topic covered on another page here.]