The doctrine of physiognomy assumes that the character of a person can be deduced from their facial features. Lavater viewed this theory as a science based on the measurements and proportions of the skull, face and its "measurable" parts (nose, chin, ears and eyes).

Lavater's four volumes contain numerous portraits of famous men who each represent a certain character. He interprets the individual face ultimately as a sign of God which had to be dicovered. In doing so, he relied on semiotics, the doctrine of signs that allows internal characteristics to be inferred from external forms.

This is based on the deeply religious core idea that God created man in his own image. In Lavater's eyes, therefore, the resemblance to Jesus became the absolute standard of judgement, which is why he understood his physiognomy as the "disclosure of the good that is in God." With this, Lavater elevated his theory to a creed.


Lavater's "Physiognomic Fragments for the Advancement of the Knowledge of Human Nature and Philanthropy" appeared every year between 1775 and 1778. Because of the numerous illustrations, the four volumes were amongst the most expensive publications of the 18th century. The German first edition was followed by English, French, Dutch and Russian translations, each with new engravings and silhouettes.

Many artists, such as Johann Heinrich Füessli and Daniel Chodowiecki, copied and painted silhouettes, copies of famous portraiture and drawings of ancient heads from all over Europe for Lavater's physiognomic collection. Even Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made a significant contribution to the first two volumes with drawings and explanations. The collection itself ultimately comprised over 22,000 pages and is located today in the National Library of Vienna. 

Lavater pursued the goal of "presenting to the reader and researcher as many diverse heads as possible to exercise his physiognomic sense. - Anyone can check whether his sense agrees with the judgement presented to him?" However, it remains unclear which character traits are indicated by what signs in the four volumes. After the appearance of the "Physiognomic Fragments", many people turned to Lavater for help. They sent silhouettes of friends, relatives and acquaintances, future spouses and business partners to gauge their character. Lavater's doctrine also drew heavy criticism, however. In light of the enthusiastic reception of the Physiognomic Fragments, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg spoke of a "physiognomics mania".


Johann Caspar Lavater was born in Zurich as the twelfth child of the physician Johann Heinrich Lavater and Regula Escher vom Glas in 1741. A rebellious and patriotic phase in his youth was followed by a pious phase. He studied theology and was first a deacon of the Church of Orphanage, and later a pastor at the Church of St. Peter. In 1769, Lavater called on the well-known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn from Berlin to either refute the statements of a Christian work or to convert. The resulting correspondence was followed closely by many contemporaries.

Lavater authored over 130 writings. However, his main work, "Physiognomic Fragments", was the first to bring him renown far beyond the borders of the Swiss Confederation. Eminent figures from politics, business and art visited him, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who distanced himself after a few years, however.

In 1799, Lavater was captured by Napoleon's troops and brought to Basel, where he remained in custody for a few weeks. In the same year, he was shot, and died in 1801.


The doctrine of physiognomics dates back to ancient times and exerted a strong influence on medieval painting. With the printing press, authors such as Giambattista Della Porta spread the theories to wider circles. In 1586, Porta's work "De humana physiognomia" assigned analogous traits to similarities between animals and humans. The courageous, honest and powerful man is contrasted with the anxious, devious and weak woman to distinguish gender characters, and they are compared with corresponding animals. Even this early work contained numerous illustrations.

In the 17th century, Charles Le Brun's richly illustrated Doctrine of the Passions was linked to this tradition, which, however, focused on facial expressions. In contrast, Lavater applied physiognomy exclusively to unchangeable parts of the face, pushing physiognomics into an unprecedented revival in the 18th century.

A continuation of his theory can be seen in Franz Joseph Gall's phrenology, which derived character features from skull shapes. Other areas of 19th century knowledge were built on Lavater's teaching: anthropometry, which purported to recognise mental patients and criminals by their body measurements, followed by criminology as the study of criminals, with Cesare Lombroso's creation of the topos of the "born criminal" in 1876, and the constitution typology of Ernst Kretschmer in 1921. Physiognomy reached its perverted high point in race hygiene.

Johann Caspar Lavater
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