• Arthur Bruso

It's All Over Your Face


"The Poet," etched and published by John Hamilton Mortimer, May 20, 1775, etching, Plate: 15 11/16"h x 12 11/16"w, sheet (edges folded under): 21 5/16"h x 13 11/16"w

John Hamilton Mortimer’s Poet etching.

"The Poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rowling,

Doth glance from heav'n to earth, from earth to heav'n,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the Poet's pen

Turns them to shape, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name."

William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night's Dream, act 5, scene 1

Our face can be our fortune, as well as tell our fortune. As a highly social species, humans exchange a great quantity of information through our faces. It is one of the richest and one of the most powerful tools we have for communication. Since humans lack the superior senses of hearing and smell of some other animals, we generally use sight as our main sensory collector. We can become adept at visual cues that send information to our brain which tell us enormous amounts of information upon meeting another individual. We look to our extraordinarily expressive faces to read the true nature of the other. We do this instinctively. We learn from babies to understand the non-verbal communication from our mothers, then from our family and so out into the world.

Just because we have learned the language of the face since birth does not mean that we are always correct in our assumptions about another. As we often misspeak when we talk, our non-verbal communications can also be misconstrued or masked – which is why we can be fooled by actors. Still, we believe our accuracy is high enough that we convince ourselves that any miscommunication in understanding a person’s facial expression is outweighed by our moments of true insight. Our face reading gets better the closer the bond and the longer the cohabitation. We can often tell when a partner or a child is ill, angry, happy, withdrawn or dozens of other emotional states, just by looking at them. And as, much we may want to be an enigma to our peers, we are often grateful when they understand our distress, our love, or our joy without having to put it into words.

Physiognomy, or the concept of reading the face has been practiced since the dawn of man. The Chinese had a system of physiognomy called mian xiang (meaning “face study” or appearance), going back to 2700 BC. Ancient India used Samudrika Shastra (meaning “knowledge of body features”) to analyzes the entire body, including reading the face. The impulse to understand the hidden aspects of humans and how they affect a person’s destiny has been a long-held interest. It was formally recognized in the west in the 5th century BC. It was first mentioned in a dialogue by the Greek philosopher Phaedo of Elis. In the dialog, Zopryus, a renowned magician who was visiting Athens, was also considered a master at physiognomy. Unfortunately, when put to the test, Zopryus did not live up to the high praise of his abilities. Encouraged by the students of Socrates to read Socrates face, Zopryus read the traits in the philosopher’s face all wrong. He claimed that Socrates was stupid and thick witted because he didn’t have hollows above the collar bone. He also declared that he was addicted to women though Socrates was well known for his admiration of beautiful boys. Graciously, Socrates gave Zopryus a honorable out and allowed him to retain his reputation by claiming to have conquered those ill divined traits. By the 4th century, a follower of Aristotle wrote Physiognomonica, a treatise that describes a system that enables one to deduce the correspondences between human form and character.

Michael Scot in Bodleian " De physionomiae", MS. Canon. Misc. 555, fol. 059r

Much later in the 13th century, Michael Scot wrote the Liber Physiognomiae, a book that concerns physiognomy, along with the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile), dream interpretation, and auguries. His physiognomy was based largely on the follower of Aristotle’s Physiognomonica, which he translated from Arabic copies and made available to Western scholars. Scot was considered the greatest public intellectual of his time. Originally, he was an ordained priest and wandering scholar. At around 1225, when he was about 50 years old, he accepted a position in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. His writing and his knowledge on a range of scientific and esoteric subjects gained him the popular reputation of being a magician who could see the future, command spirits, and conjure up the Devil. This reputation of sorcery also contributed to the popular understanding that physiognomy was a method born of magic and psychic ability.

Widely accepted in the Middle Ages as a valid science, physiognomy was taught in European universities until about 1530. At that time, Henry VIII outlawed face reading or “fisnamy” as it became known, along with palmistry in England because it had been taken up by con-men and swindlers to take advantage of the ignorant and naïve. After 1530, physiognomy fell into disrepute because of Henry VIII’s condemnation.


Giambattista Della Porta, “De Humana Physiognomonia” Libri iiii, page 60

By the 1600’s physiognomy was relegated to the arcane and occult sciences because of its connection to Michael Scot’s persistent reputation as a magician. The system attracted Giambattista Della Porta, a gentleman, alchemist, and scientist, who had a deep interest in the occult and natural anomalies. He became aware of the practice through Scot’s translation of Physiognomonica. In 1586 after studying prisoners, he wrote his own treatise De Humana Physiogonomonia. In his book he compares the sympathies of humans with those of animals. He found connections and determined interpretations between a person’s features and the animals they resembled. He determined that if you looked like a lion, you would have a personality like a lion; outgoing and regal, and so with all manner of human facial and animal resemblances.

It was not until the mid 1700s that physiognomy became popular with the general public again through Johann Kaspar Lavater. Lavater published Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, his deluxe book on physiognomy. It became a best seller of its time due more to its expensive binding and lavish illustrations rather than its content. Greatly influenced by Della Porta’s studies in the field. Lavater had the idea that facial characteristics were related to specific personality traits, rather than Della Porta’s assertion that general appearances had associations with animal behaviors. Lavater’s ideas on physiognomy became the basis of the western system in use today.

Like palmistry, physiognomy or face reading does not require any psychic ability to practice. When reading the face, certain features have fixed meanings: a high forehead indicates intelligence, thin lips show avarice, blue eyes, clarity of vision. There are meanings to every facial feature and their variants. The physiognomist needs to be acquainted with all of the face’s features, their different shapes, colors (eyes, hair), and sizes and the meanings attributed to them. It can take some study to be versed in the many meanings. There is also the skill needed to take all of the individual aspects of a face, decipher their meaning and then put together a cogent narrative. It is possible for a person to have an intuitive aptitude for understanding how to read facial expressions and body language for cues to another’s emotional states. The face, like the palm or the equipment and materials used for other methods of divination, can be a focus for metaphysical energy and perhaps channel greater insight on the information that can be gathered through observational means. Frauds and swindlers take advantage when they make up information about a person by asking leading questions, and take visual cues from the subject and their companions. They often have no knowledge of the actual facial meanings of physiognomy. Their success lies in their ability to fabulate a convincing story out of an airy nothing. We often give ourselves away through innocent chatter and emotional reactions.

There is also the method where the subject’s future can be told by looking at various areas of the face that corollate with a person’s age. For instance, the area below the hairline is purported to hold the subject’s personal history from the ages of birth to twenty. The brow area would be consulted for the history of the person from age twenty-one to twenty-six, and so on down the face, with each zone representing another span of years. Ages not yet attained would be read as the future. Health can also be determined by studying distinct places on the face that are assigned to specific internal organs or organ systems. The forehead and ears foretell the health of the heart. The eyes can reveal the condition of the kidneys. All of this information would be compiled to offer a complete “reading” of a subject covering most of a person’s life, personality traits and health.

Artists have long made their living studying the face. The best portraits have always been those that reveal some of the psychology of the sitter. In order to achieve this level of connection, artists need to somehow be able to divine the interior life of their subject. In some ways, an artist may be the most sensitive of physiognomists, since their job is to translate the character of the person posing into an image the viewer can understand and relate to. If we gaze at a portrait and we come away with some bit of insight or knowledge about this person’s emotional state or their internal life, then the portrait is an achievement. The artist has been successful in their task to convey more than a likeness to the viewer.

Most practicing artists before the 20th century, with a large working studio of assistants, kept portfolios of reference drawings. The drawings covered a range of subjects that would be commonly used in the finished paintings, from trees and mountains for the backgrounds, to stock characters for incidental figures that occupy a painting. These areas of a painting were often trusted to assistants and apprentices who would use the images in the portfolios as reference material. Portrait artists, as well as other figurative painters collected and kept various studies of human faces, especially those who’s particular continence or situation appealed to their sensibility. They would collect studies of interesting dispositions to fill in the faces of stock characters and incidental figures of religious subjects and history paintings. Many artists were fond of collecting the grotesque in humanity. This was not because they had an interest in exploiting a particular individual’s extraordinary human burden, but more because when you are commissioned to idealize the beauty of your patron or the perfection of a god or nymph, the bald reality of nature becomes more interesting than cosmetic prettiness. At a time when art was focused on the perfection of human form, it brought the realities of life back into perspective. In the northern European countries, ugliness was considered a trait of sin. Often the depictions of people mocking Christ, or those damned to hell were portrayed in as unflattering a manner as possible to drive the point of the immorality home. Just as in a group of smooth stones, the rough one catches your eye. In nature, one becomes interested in the anomaly, rather than the regularity. Sameness is boring.


Leonardo da Vinci, Study Of Five Grotesque Heads, 1493, Ink on paper, 10.26” h x 8.11” w, Royal Collection Trust, London

Leonardo da Vinci was particularly interested in collecting interesting faces. He drew pages of them. Most of them seem to be created for the joy of drawing and capture the endless variety of human features. Others may be complete caprices pulled from his imagination and scientific studies rather than true portraits. Some seem to have found their way into unfinished works like his Adoration of the Magi and St. Jerome. But the bulk of his “grotesques,” were not used as the basis of any known art works. He created them to understand and admire the great variety and ingenuity of the hand of God on the faces of humanity.

Quentin Matsys, a Flemish painter who lived between 1466 and 1530, based much of his oeuvre on the character study or the grotesque portrait. His painting Ill-Matched Marriage of 1525 is typical of his subject. It depicts an older woman proposing to a young man. Surrounding what was considered an improbable couple is a burlesque cast of dubious characters, each bringing their own questionable traits to the scene. Wickedness and transgression seem to surround the atmosphere of the engagement party. Their less than admirable motives toward this pairing are reflected in their faces.

Quentin Matsys, 1525–1530, Oil on panel, 21" h × 35" w, São Paulo Museum of Art, Brazil

A host of other artists delighted in rendering the grotesque in its human form: Durer, Bruegel Tiepolo among them. Tiepolo even manages to transform his characters into diabolical satyrs and devils.


Albrecht Dürer, "Head of a man in profile to left," 1505, ink on paper, 8.19" h x 5.8" w

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, "Heads of Satyrs and other Grotesque Heads," 1774, Etching, Plate: 2 5/8"h × 10 11/16"w, Sheet: 4 11/16" h × 12 15/16" w  

The character study became so popular that some artists began to produce works for sale that catered to the collectors of the genre. In 1775 the artist John Hamilton Mortimer

John Hamilton Mortimer, "Self-portrait, head and shoulders, wearing a turban," late 18th century, pen and ink, 14.25"h x 11.75"w

embarked upon a series of etchings of Shakespearean characters that incorporated his own enthusiasm for the character study. They were also designed to profit from the great interest in Shakespeare’s plays which were having a surge of bardolatry at the time. The etchings, which would number twelve in total, were sold by subscription in sets of six, published a year apart. Mortimer married the same year as he began the etchings. The timing makes it difficult not to access that the publishing of this suite of prints was not an obviously calculated action on his part to prove his financial prospects and make himself more attractive as a partner to his new bride.

John Hamilton Mortimer was born in 1740 in the southern coastal town of Eastbourne, England. His father was a comfortably middle-class customs officer and miller. By the time Mortimer was 17, his father was able to send him to the Duke of Richmond’s Academy in London to study art. As a youth in London, Mortimer was more interested in living an artist’s Bohemian lifestyle than in making art. As his self-portrait shows, Mortimer romanticized the Italian banditti as an antihero. His life was marked by “shipwrecks narrowly avoided, a tussle in which a sword stroke nearly cost him a hand, and various feats of strenuous athleticism interspersed with equally strenuous bouts of drunkenness” (Royal Collection Trust). Mortimer first established himself as a portrait painter but aspired to be a history painter. In the hierarchy of the day, history painting was the epitome of artistic expression and gained the greatest adulation from the national academies. Despite this youthful ambition, by the time he was 30, Mortimer had struck out in a new direction, choosing to depict the most extreme aspects of human nature, fitting with his excessive and adventurous lifestyle. A more practical reason for Mortimer’s shift in artistic interest, was that he soon realized that while admired and lauded by the art establishment, history painting was not as lucrative a genre financially. Character portraits and etchings attracted much interest and were widely collected. An image etched onto a metal plate could be printed and sold multiple times. Selling subscriptions meant that the artist could be paid in advance for work yet to be produced, while the size of the edition would be determined by the popularity of the subscription. Moreover, Mortimer found that portraiture required a certain ability to flatter and cajole a sitter. Not all artists had the patience or fortitude to indulge in the fancies and whims of their patrons and Mortimer discovered that his constitution was ill suited for the part of flatterer.

Mortimer’s suite of Shakespeare Characters allowed the artist to employ his powers of observation, his love of expressive features, as well as his celebrated draftsmanship, to produce 12 imaginary personalities of exaggerated and theatrical emotional states. It is not chance that led him to choose 12 of Shakespeare’s most stereotypical and caricatured stage personas. Depicting characters such as: Bardolph the thief from Henry IV who is defined by his large, swollen nose; Edgar the heir to the throne in King Lear disguised as a mad beggar; and Caliban the half man, half monster from The Tempest, Mortimer’s choices each have some extreme physical or visual trait that the artist found made the character interesting or entertaining to depict and fit his sensibilities. His choice of The Poet as part of this suite is curious since he is not even a true character. The Poet is a stereotype of the creative mind, as expressed by Theseus the Duke of Athens to his betrothed Hippolyta the queen of the Amazons in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When Hippolyta mentions how strangely lovers talk (Theseus and Hippolyta are entering into a political marriage), Theseus responds by comparing lovers to lunatics and poets who see devils and monsters everywhere. Mortimer has chosen this speech as an opportunity to portray an artist in the perennially enigmatic moment of inspiration. The poet, who is defined by the laurel chaplet he wears on his head and his Gypsy earring, is paused in the act of writing as if listening to a mysterious voice. He looks over his shoulder in the direction of the sound, the light of revelation hot upon his cheek. His eye rolls and pops with astonishment as understanding and insight dawn on him. It is the dramatic way we all seem to want creative inspiration to happen.

While Mortimer gets the grotesquerie of the moment right, on closer inspection an observer may wonder about the anatomy of the arm supporting the hand with the pen. The awkward positioning begs the question of just how is it attached to the body? And that eye! As expressive and important as it is to convey the wonderment of the heavenly dictation, do human eyes really have that stalked, lizard like, twisting ability?

Even so, Mortimer is adept with his craft and exploits the unique qualities of the etching. The background tone is electrified with a visual static noise that adds an optical aurality. The hard, theatrical light on the face sets the right mood of otherworldly intervention. The sparse drawing of the shoulder provides enough information to define the anatomy and provide the effect of it thrusting into space yet allows all of the visual interest to rest on the expression of the face.

These etchings would be the apex and summation of Mortimer’s career. He would complete another suite of 15 etchings of allegories, banditti and various sea monsters that were dedicated to Joshua Reynolds. These were not as financially successful as the Shakespeare Characters and not as finely imagined. The subject matter of these final etchings had little to do with Reynolds work as a painter, but Reynolds was the founder and president of the Royal Academy. He influenced Mortimer’s election to the Academy in November of 1778. Mortimer dedicated his final etchings to Reynolds as an appreciation of the honor. Unfortunately, Mortimer would not fully exploit his membership to the Royal Academy, for three months later he died of a fever at age 39. His dissolute youth having caught up with him.

I had not been aware of the artist John Hamilton Mortimer until I saw his print of The Poet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition About Face: Human Expression on Paper. About Face was an entire exhibition devoted to character studies and the ways artists collect and depict human emotion for use in their studio practice. It included mostly works on paper and spanned Western art from the 16th -19th centuries. Of all the objects assembled, it was the etching of The Poet that stopped me and drew me to a closer viewing. Perhaps it was because that as an artist, the question of inspiration has become so hackneyed. For non-artists, inspiration seems to be the most perplexing and fascinating part of the creative process. For me, The Poet captured the myth of creativity perfectly. It was equally snide, and persuasive at the same time. It offered the non-artist the answer they expected, but also poked fun at their ignorance too. I chuckled at the image and determined to find out more about the artist.

In my research on Mortimer, his etching, and the art of the character study, it became clear that as with most art, there was not a single path to and from the genre of the grotesque. The artist’s practice is not merely reporting on what he sees. Instead, the best of art is an interpretation of the world through all of the artist’s senses. The act of singling out the extraordinary in humanity as something to share has associations with an artist’s interest in portraying the grotesque. To turn repugnance and ugliness around and embrace it can be considered subversive. The artist shows us with his insight and craft how to put our fears and our obsolete cultural biases aside to see the beauty in difference. The grotesque is not necessarily a mocking of another person’s misfortune. It is not a statement of, ‘I am blessed, but he is not.’ Instead, it is a celebration of the acceptance and the acknowledgement of the dignity inherent in all human form and the character that pervades all human faces.


Arthur Bruso © 2020


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