Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) was a celebrated French artist who King Louis XIV declared “the greatest French artist of all time.” While he may have been a fine artist, he was no scientist.
Le Brun subscribed to belief in physiognomy, which literally means “knowledge of nature.” The basic idea was that you could look at someone’s physical features and know about their personality.
For instance, St. Paul was often painted with a large forehead to symbolize his studious nature. That is to say, a large forehead implied a large (and presumably well-functioning) brain.
Le Brun explored physiognomy in a new way, by comparing facial features of people to animals. Here are some selections from his series. Suffice to say, there is no scientific validity to physiognomy, but the drawings are still fun to look at.
Rabbits have a mixed history as far as symbolism goes. Due to their ability to procreate quickly, they are associated with virility, fertility, and sexual desire.
Their appearance in the spring also led to them being associated with rebirth. This association is what allowed a seemingly unrelated bunny to become part of the Easter holiday.
Rabbits are also highly symbolic of prey. In fact, they are an archetypical prey animal that has few defenses other than the ability to procreate quickly. Someone with the features of a rabbit could be thought of as easy to exploit or take advantage of.
With one look at the man with a boar’s features, and we can tell it’s not a flattering comparison. While people use the homonym “boor” to refer to someone with bad manners, being compared to a boar is not much better,
Wild boars are extremely destructive and dangerous. Like the domestic pig, boars are capable of eating vast quantities of crops or other food.
On the other hand, a boar’s great strength and appetite did lead to it being respected by many in Medieval times. Killing a boar was a highly prized achievement and many warriors engraved their shields and helmets with boars.
Le Brun’s illustrations came out about a century before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace introduced the world to evolution. Even before the close relationship between man and monkey was discovered, people noticed the similarity.
Many artists used monkeys as symbols of men beholden to their earthly desires. Also, instead of viewing monkeys as smart mammals, many saw them as dumber versions of humans. This led to the term “to ape” meaning simply to copy someone else’s actions without understanding them.
As helpful as donkeys have been to humankind, we don’t have many positive stereotypes of them. Lazy, stupid, and stubborn are the adjectives most often associated with this beast of burden.
Throughout cultures worldwide, donkeys are viewed as stupid and obstinate. Needless to say, having a facial structure similar to a donkey wasn’t viewed as a positive by physiognomists.
Foxes have a much more positive if somewhat mixed reputation. They have traditionally been seen as clever and cunning.
In many medieval stories, foxes trick others to get what they want. They seldom get punished for their misdeeds and are seen as something to avoid lest they trick you too.
Le Brun’s illustrations may not have scientific value, but they are still fascinating to look at. Seeing how faces were judged by arbitrary characteristics is a good reminder for us to reexamine how we judge first appearances.