This post was written by Alexandra Frost and Argula Rublack, Library Graduate Trainees at the Warburg Library. It forms part of a series of blog posts on the theme of Hope and Fear in library and archive collections, as part of the Being Human festival and History Day 2016.
The illustrations of ‘Hope’ and ‘Fear’ featured in this post are taken from a series of diagrams composed by the influential French artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Le Brun was perhaps best known for the key role he played in the artistic program at Versailles, but was also the chancellor of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture during the reign of King Louis XIV. The illustrations accompanied his famous lecture on the effect of the passions on human expression, the Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière (1668). The lecture addressed Le Brun’s conviction that the passions of the soul measurably affect the muscles of the face, and thus in turn prescribe the models upon which artists should construct the facial composition of their subjects.
According to Le Brun, Hope ‘keeps all of the parts of the body suspended between Fear and Assurance, in such a manner that if one end of the eyebrow expresses Fear, the other expresses Assurance’. He continued, ‘… if there is no likelihood of obtaining that which we desire, then Fear or Despair replaces Hope. The movements of Fear are expressed by the inner end of the eyebrow slightly raised; the pupil is bright, in restless movement, and situated in the middle of the eye; the mouth is open, drawn back, and the sides more open than the centre, and the under lip drawn further back than the upper’. Despite Le Brun’s attempt to rationalise the precepts behind these illustrations scientifically (‘…the gland which is in the middle of the brain is the place where the soul receives the images of the passions, so the eyebrow is the part of the face where the passions are best distinguished’) they are certainly more influenced by personal intuition than he suggests.
Le Brun’s codification of the passions is set within the seventeenth-century world view of Cartesianism. Shaped by the ideas of philosopher René Déscartes, particularly his Traité des passions de l’âme (“Treaty on the Passions of the Soul”), Le Brun and his contemporaries inhabited a world where the cosmos was conceived as a giant mechanism which could be ordered and explained through reason. Nature, humanity and all their products, including art, could be subjected to a set of universally applicable scientific rules. Following this new scientific spirit, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was preoccupied with identifying axioms for the painter’s practice to establish une science acadèmique du beau (an academic science of beauty). This not only allowed the ennoblement of art as a scientific practice but also created a practical, pedagogical tool to train artists in a shared visual grammar which could be used for the precise communication of the emotions.
The presentation of the passions as a physiological and scientific theory garnered Le Brun a wide international audience. This bilingual French and Italian edition, published in Verona in 1751, from the holdings of the Warburg Library (classmark: DAC 2125), is a testament to the treatise’s translation and dissemination across Europe. However, by the end of the eighteenth century Le Brun’s theories made way for new approaches to anatomical knowledge and scientific questions challenging the assumption that facial expression could be explained by a limited number of principles.
Despite this, Le Brun’s theories highlight the continuing examination of the relationship between art and science. The founder of the Warburg library, Aby Warburg, was well-known for his interdisciplinary interests and advocated collaboration with scientific disciplines to further cultural studies. This is reflected in the Institute’s current “Body and Image in Arts and Sciences (BIAS)” project which investigates “biological mechanisms and cultural factors that shape our relations to other people in a culture powered by images” (http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/research/research-projects/bias). Le Brun’s enquiry into the nature and representation of human emotion thus becomes a historical artefact resonating in the wider debate on the hopes and fears of bridging the gap between scientific and art historical approaches. Find the book and more related to this subject at the classmark DAC 2125 (4th Floor) in the Warburg Library.