Lavater’s Book of Faces. An Enlightenment Era Glance at People and Art
The exhibition is an attempt to look at portraiture through the eyes of Johann Caspar Lavater and poses the intriguing question: do a person’s facial features reveal his character and abilities? Johann Caspar Lavater (1741–1801), who was born and mostly worked in Switzerland, has been largely forgotten, although during the Enlightenment era he was a noteworthy thinker, pastor of a Protestant church, an art collector and author. He compiled the famous opus Essays on Physiognomy with the goal of analysing different faces and thus helping promote the knowledge of human nature and the love of mankind.
Physiognomy originated in ancient times and eventually became the basis of the infamous race theory of the 1930s. Lavater studied and promoted this discipline with the noblest of aims: to make the world better in the name of saving people’s souls and spreading Christian humanity.
Lavater’s studies of physiognomy were based on thousands of portraits. His motivation was to find the actual face of God through an analysis of human faces. Lavater was spurred on by his deep faith: the belief that God created man in his own image.
Lavater’s views from the second half of the 18th century still found plenty of supporters in the mid-19th century: he was convinced that the outside and inside of a human being were closely linked, that the more beautiful a person was the higher his or her moral standards, that ugly people also had a purpose in this world because otherwise God would not have created them, and so on. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy were published in several pocket editions, and were used to judge other members of society and ultimately led to the introduction of a new catch phrase: “Never leave home without a mask!”
Lavater’s circle of acquaintances was impressively extensive and included such notable people as Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, the German painters Anton Graff and the brothers Kügelgen, the Tallinn apothecary Johann Burchard VII, and the Russian emperor Paul and empress Maria Feodorovna. Some of them saw Lavater as a great benefactor of the time, while others viewed him as a hopeless dreamer without any sense of reality, who nevertheless dared to look at the world in a novel way.
August Friedrich Oelenhainz. Portrait of Lavater. 1788. Art Museum of Estonia