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Impressed upon the countenance: knowledge and visibility in Lavaterian physiognomy

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An English reader perusing the Henry Hunter translation of the controversial and enormously popular treatise ‘Essays on Physiognomy’ in the 1790s would have encountered something rather strange: a text that disputes itself. This dissonance, staged in illustrations, footnotes, and captions, concerns the problem of how to illustrate physiognomic knowledge, a field predicated on the representation of human truths on the visible surface of the body. Crucially, Lavater insisted that physiognomy provided an avenue to scientific knowledge because the interior nature of things was ‘impressed’ upon the perceptible world. However, Fuseli’s illustrations for Lavater’s text, ‘impressions’ of a different order, appear to undermine and contradict this claim at every turn.

The competing textual and visual layers of ‘Essays on Physiognomy’ give voice to a bitter dispute between the Swiss minister Johann Caspar Lavater and his compatriot, the artist Henry Fuseli. I will argue that Fuseli and Lavater’s dispute over the relationship between copy and original, legibility and visibility, was also, and more deeply, a dispute about how one knows things to be true, about the possibilities for and limitations of perceiving and communicating knowledge of the natural world at the end of the eighteenth century. I will suggest today that Fuseli’s illustrations register a deep instability in certain epistemological structures, and signal their imminent collapse.

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