Lavater was a Swiss theologian and minister in the Saint Peters church in Zurich.

He belongs to the nomination of pietism fostering an intuitive and emotionally form of Christianity. To promote mutual understanding and love between people, he embarked as an amateur psychologist in the field of physiognomy. From 1775 he published four parts “Physiognomische Fragmente”.

According to him, there exists a direct and fixed connection between the outward appearance of men and women and the inner state of their soul, which can be detected not by experimental research but merely by analogy reasoning. Moreover, in daily life, this connection is according to Lavater detectable by a first impression.


In Lavater’s time, his doctrine made a great ascent because it fitted so well in the cultivation of the inner life in Europe as was described and disseminated by writers like Rousseau and Goethe.

The French term “sensibilité ” held for example, that members of the main upper classes could be called truly “sensible” when they spontaneously burst into tears at the sight of the poverty and misery of the disadvantaged, to grieve over the miserable fate that these unfortunates had struck. Without in the first instance feeling the impetus to a sort of amelioration of that fate.


Many illustrations in the books of Lavater were manufactured by the German vignette draftsman and engraver Daniel Chodowiecki, who had gained fame from 1770 as an illustrator of book illustrations and almanacks.

Temperaments, from Lavater

For Lavater as a Protestant clergyman, physiognomy was based on the religious principle that God had created man in His image and that because of that beauty and goodness coincide. On this basis, he posited that there is a direct link between the outward signs such as facial expressions and inner characteristics, as a kind of natural law.



Lavater assessed caricature negative. He saw in the caricature a portrayal of bad characteristics.  According to Lavater Hogarth and Rembrandt excelled in portraying those bad characteristics. In his collection of bad character heads made by famous artists stood this Judas Iscariot (which he incidentally wrongly attributed to Rembrandt) as a marked example. 

About this picture, he wrote: “Even this drawing confirms the truth that moral degeneration, means also degeneration of the physiognomy …..this plate is one of the most hideous and interesting caricatures.”

 Ugliness indicates, according to him, after all, moral weakness just as beauty indicates virtue.


Lavater let make facial silhouettes and placed thereby such enigmatic comments as: “the nose only has capacity” – “male only in the narrow circle above the eye”“the forehead is not sharp enough, yet rich in memory and prudence” – “length of the lower lip to the nose points to thoughtless indiscretion “.


Lavater ‘s “Fragments” contain also many Human-Animal comparisons for instance designed by Della Porta, Le Brun and others. Unclear is whether he also believed that the comparisons reflect true facts or just analogies. Anyway, the artistic examples by Chodowiecki and others are very impressive transformations of human and animal features.


Lavater’s doctrine is typical for 18th-century deterministic attitudes which are unfriendly for examples of the opposite. The identification of beauty and goodness went so far as to represent Christ as Apollo.

But already Erasmus considered beauty as well as ugliness as deceitful illusions. The Greek saw – pointed Erasmus out-  in the drunken and ugly Silenus an appearance of the god.


Soon after and in the footsteps of Lavater, the Romantic movement discovered the “fatal woman”, who under her ravishing beauty hides the most hideous and grubby passions, who in circumstances can turn out to be poisoner or spy.

Physiognomy is also definitely not a science which delivers absolute certainty but can be used in ambiguous ways.

Now came up the inclination to see beauty as a mask for evil, instead of the face as a mirror of the soul.