Editorial of december 10th 2005

Martial Guédron
the physiognomy of jean-baptiste delestre (1800-1871) :
ideal beauty and autopsy of the social body

  Pierre Wat a nineteenth-century man
Seminar of December 10th 2004
Martial Guédron is a professor of Art History at Marc Bloch University (Strasbourg II). His research bears on the body as the ground of figurative representation and as an object of investigation toward which art, science, and morality never cease to direct their attention; see: De Chair et de marbre. Imiter et exprimer le nu en France (1745-1815) (Paris: H. Champion, 2003). He also studies artistic discourses’ own myths in Peaux d’âmes. L’interprétation physiognomonique des oeuvres d’art (Paris: Kimé, 2001). His work in collaboration with Laurent Baridon on the aesthetic issues involved in physiognomic theories (Corps et arts. Physionomies et physiologies dans les arts visuels [Paris and Montréal: L’Harmattan, 1999]) led him to curate with Baridon an exhibition entitled Homme-Animal. Histoires d’un face à face at the Museums of Strasbourg in the Spring of 2004, as well as to coedit with him the accompanying catalogue. Currently in preparation is a work on the aesthetic foundations of anthropology at the turn of the century of Enlightenment.
the physiognomy of jean-baptiste delestre (1800-1871) :
ideal beauty and autopsy of the social body

        It is rather disturbing to discover how a man who was relatively famous in his time can, bit by bit, come to disappear from biographical dictionaries. Working on the confluence of art, science, and morality in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, and, more particularly, through representations of the human body, it was inevitable that I would come across the name of Jean-Baptiste Delestre, whose writings connect a number of themes of interest to me. The Grande Encyclopédie Larousse du XIXe siècle, a mine of date to which one must return again and again, devotes a fine article to him from which I drew a great deal of useful information. At the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, he still was allotted nineteen lines in Claude Augé’s Nouveau Larousse illustré, whereas in 1961 the Grand Larousse encyclopédique had become much more concise. By 1982, Delestre was omitted from the Grand Dictionnaire encyclopédique Larousse. Other biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias confirm this progressive removal: while the Dictionnaire de Biographie française edited by Roman d’Amat and Roger Limouzin-Lamothe offers a rather substantial article about him, the one found in the Encyclopédie Universelle du XXe siècle is already much more succinct, and one will thumb in vain through a number of more recent works looking for the least amount of information about this figure.

Artist, Theorist, Politician

        Jean-Baptiste Delestre was born in Lyon, France on February 10, 1800 and seems to have decided early on for a career as a painter. This decision led him to enroll in the Paris École des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts school) on November 7, 1816. In 1821, he was accepted into the studio of Antoine-Jean Gros at a period when the latter was endeavoring to inherit the mantle of Jacques-Louis David and had lapsed into academic classicism. Having become the painter’s friend and disciple, Delestre tried his hand at painting, engraving, sculpture, and even caricature, branding with shame the regulations of Charles X published in the Moniteur on July 26, 1830, and then attacking the political maneuvers of Louis-Philippe. He also produced busts, sculpted medallions, and, starting in 1838, he showed regularly at the Paris Salon his landscapes, portraits, and compositions on religious subjects. This participation in official exhibitions was abruptly halted in 1847, the year he was elected to the municipal council of Paris and to the Seine departmental council. He then took a very active part in the 1848 Revolution, becoming Mayor of Paris’s Twelfth Arrondissement. The December 2, 1851 coup d’État was to return him to private life: he then quit all his public posts in order to devote himself fully to physiognomy, with the intention of turning it into a genuine science. A staunch French Republican, he continued to attack his political enemies through caricature and, according to several witnesses, brought together his friends in his studio at 350 rue Saint-Jacques in Paris.

        It obviously was not through his artistic production that Delestre became well known to his contemporaries or to posterity. While he is clearly reported to be a painter in such biographical dictionaries of artists as the Gabet, the Thieme und Becker, and the Bénézit, the few art historians who still mention him today do so only for his biography of Gros, published in 1845, which is guilty of inaccuracies. That said, Delestre’s works are worthy of a bit more than a mere scholarly mention, for they raise a variety of questions that overlap with the problems being broached within the context of the present seminar. More specifically, the interaction between his various centers of interest, perfectly brought together in his final volume published in 1866, should command a very particular attention. Indeed, this “work that reads like his last will and testament [ouvrage-testament]” (to borrow a phrase from the nineteenth-century Larousse) is the culmination of an approach that matured little by little his whole life long. The avowed objective of this book, soberly entitled De la physiognomonie (On physiognomy), is rather specific: for Delestre, it is a matter of mobilizing his talents as an observer and draftsman in order to establish a sort of operating manual that would enable one to read physiognomies and to diagnose the morality of individuals via their physical appearance.

Probing Bodies, Probing Souls

        In order to grasp more firmly all the stakes involved in such a program, it is fitting to establish its genealogy and to go back to the year 1827, when Delestre published a collection of lithographs based on the heads of the characters in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. In the Foreword, he claims that the drawings for these illustrations were made to scale on the basis of direct tracings from the original composition. Naturally, if one considers the state of the fresco, one may strongly suspect that these heads traced, drawn, and lithographed are highly interpretive; besides, the results are sometimes rather clumsy, even bordering on unintentional caricature. Striking is the fact that Delestre wished, at the risk of distorting his models, to accentuate the age, character, expression, and costume of Christ and of the Apostles. Here, he links up with a whole current of popularization of da Vinci’s works via engravings, a current that took a special interest in the idealized heads of the Milan Last Supper and the corpus of grotesque or caricatured heads so often imitated since the sixteenth century. In both cases, but from opposite poles, Leonardo seemed to be furnishing visual models to those who took a passionate interest in the physical expression of character and of the movements of the soul.

        In 1829, at a time when the works and drawings of Leonardo on the dissection of human beings that were recorded in the Windsor library manuscripts still went mostly unrecognized, Delestre collaborated on an Iconographie pathologique (Pathological iconography), providing a dozen lithographed plates illustrating clinical observations made by doctors at the Val de Grâce and Charity Hospitals in Paris. Here again, the work’s Foreword appears quite instructive, since in it we find an insistence that drawings are a useful means for focusing very clearly on the morbid alterations in the human body. When looking at some of these plates, one cannot help but be reminded that the Orfila and Dupuytren Museums’ pathological anatomy collections were built up at around the same time. And in skimming through the accompanying text, one also perceives a sort of anxious jubilation in the description of the properly “pictorial” qualities of certain sick bodies—an impression reinforced in the deluxe edition, with its color plates: here, symptomatology coincides with an aesthetic experience that was still quite unusual at this date, since its object is the human form as altered by all sorts of pathologies.

        Thus, as early as the 1820s Delestre demonstrated a clear interest for the man within. He conferred upon autopsy, in the broad sense of the word, a special place that would not be denied later on. Moreover, in this same year, 1829, he published a Tableau synoptique d’un cours de philosophie de la peinture d’après une théorie fondée sur la concentration et l’excentration (Synoptic table of a course in the philosophy of painting according to a theory based upon concentration and eccentration). This time it was a matter of a sort of plan for studying how the character, the passions, and the qualities of the moral man affect the forms and colors of the physical man, whether in the state of action or in the state of rest, while always taking account of the variations due to sex, climate, degree of civilization, political regime, and social standing. Here we have the rough draft of Delestre’s great project, namely, his Physiognomonie (Physiognomy). In 1833, he published a treatise of a little more than 400 hundred pages in length entitled Étude des passions apppliquées aux Beaux-Arts (A study of the passions as applied to the Fine Arts). This book, which would be reissued several times, is a direct deduction of the first part of the program announced in his synoptic table, for it is based upon the postulate that each of the movements of the soul is reproduced and revealed through an eccentric or concentric (1) bodily sign that it is incumbent upon the artist to transcribe in graphic terms—regrettably, this time Delestre did not furnish any illustrations. We cannot analyze in detail here the content of this text; we can simply underscore that it came out at a time when several authors were attempting to draw up a list of the passions for the use of artists, so as to revitalize and update research undertaken by Charles Le Brun. Take, for example, Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière’s study, Physiologie de l’action musculaire appliquée aux arts d’imitation (Physiology of muscular action as applied to the imitative arts) or the works of Duchenne de Boulogne on the analysis of the operation of the facial muscles with the aide of localized galvanization. It must also be pointed out that most of the authors who claimed to acquire knowledge of the moral man through the inspection of his physical appearance were now establishing a clear-cut distinction between the analysis of transitory passions and the study of fixed character traits. In his Essai sur les passions appliquées aux Beaux-Arts, Delestre took a particular interest in analyzing what, on the body’s surface, was unstable, contingent, and variable. It was only later on that he centered his research on physiognomy in the strict sense, namely capturing what is lasting in the form and in the character of human beings—an approach that is at the heart of his last book, which appeared five years prior to his death.

Masks, Casts, and Skulls

        If his physiognomy can be defined as that work of his which reads like his last will and testament, this is no doubt because a number of ideas broached in his prior works are to be found again here. That said, his argument has now been considerably expanded and is grounded upon a corpus of five-hundred-and-thirty-nine drawings he himself engraved for the purpose of this publication. His objective, he announces, is as follows: it is a matter of studying man, the better to understand him and to trace out a physiognomic alphabet, so that one may learn to read with fluency the surface of the human body, especially the face. This metaphor of the body’s alphabet is not at all unprecedented, since it is to be found both in the treatises of artistic theory since the time of the Renaissance and in texts devoted more specifically to the expression of the passions. From there, one can spot other residues from the old physiognomic tradition, such as the parallels between the physiognomy of men and those of animals, allusions to the theory of the temperaments, as well as the hierarchy between the upper and lower parts of the face, from which he draws all sorts of conclusions in terms of the size of each zone and of the orientation of the lines sketched there. At the same time, as he had already done in his treatise on the passions, he declares again here to have gathered some of his information from his contacts with hospital patients and some of their doctors. Nevertheless, it is no longer so much the medical model that now dominates his approach but, rather, an anthropological one. He declares, indeed, that he has privileged his observations at Paris’s Museum of Natural History and intimates that when he frequented the Paris School of Medicine, it was above all in order to draw there the skulls and head casts of executed criminals in the anatomical exhibition room’s collection. As a matter of fact, what is striking in the illustrations he offers is the large proportion of those that have been made from casts, from skulls, and also from many painted, drawn, or sculpted portraits, as compared to those he says he has drawn from life. He attempts to put forward a justification for this by pointing out that drawing from nature is restrictive, because it demands that people sit for a certain length of time that few remarkable individuals are disposed to offer him. In addition, skulls, plaster casts, engraved portraits, and sculpted busts offer the distinct advantage of complete immobility.

        The final thing to point out is that Delestre did not have recourse, at least directly, to photography. Nonetheless, he was quite familiar with its advantages, since he had collaborated, at the end of the 1850s, in an Annuaire de la photographie (Photography yearbook) that took stock of the various aspects of this technique. As is known, photography at this time was often being described as the surest means of producing images that would offer the highest guarantees of veracity. And even if everyone talked of the “photographic art” and of the benefit, in particular, of creating a photographic “museum” of the human races, for most of the authors who took an interest in it, this new medium was but a product of a mechanical recording process, blindly accurate without any artifice, that resulted in images offering a frozen and dead resemblance—exactly what casts from nature had been criticized for over at least the two preceding centuries. Indeed, photography was considered by scientists to be an indispensable complement to cast making, and some of them argued for its systematic application in various taxonomic endeavors. One thinks, of course, of the work Alphonse Bertillon would undertake in the 1880s, but it was in fact as early as the 1840s that photographic plates of prisoners, photographic illustrations [iconographies photographiques] of mental illness, and the use of daguerreotypes in the field of anthropology first appeared. Finally, let us recall that in 1866, the year his Physiognomonie was published, the principles for making identity cards with a seal and a photograph had just been laid down. In short, whether it was in medical, psychiatric, anthropological, or legal iconography, this period experienced numerous initiatives that would soon be determinative for the social uses of photography and, more generally, for representations of the body.

By the Yardstick of Apollo

        Delestre was entirely convinced that photography would promote physiognomic investigations. He went so far as to declare that it would allow people to judge the political authorities via their varying official portraits: “What a curious iconographic biography one would procure with a collection of names of this sort! What a pillory for certain models.” That said, it must be observed that the visual sources for his numerous illustrations are highly varied and that the act of transposing them by means of a sober, academic drawing allows them to take on a formal unity and a shared style, while suggesting at the same time to the reader that each case is being evaluated with the same degree of objectivity. Moreover, the choice of drawing is unquestionably that of a man who has not completely given up seeing things as an artist and therefore retaining for himself a share of interpretation by playing up sensibility over against mechanical recording; each one of the work’s illustrations is signed. Thus, whereas he prided himself on having based his observations upon a scientific approach and he intended to put his skills as a draftsman in the service of an analysis of the anatomical, physiological, and social characteristics of individuals, his criteria for judgment and the divisions he deduces therefrom are heavily marked by his aesthetic positions.

        A first division is to be found in the contrast between the highly ugly man and the ideally handsome one, or between, on the one hand, the “nigger” bordering on the animal and, on the other, the Belvedere Apollo, whose perfect beauty is the sign of a higher intelligence. That one might treat some of one’s compatriots as “monkeys” on account of their physical appearance pertains to what Delestre labels “public spitefulness.” On the other hand, when he advances his comparisons between the chimpanzee and certain African or Oceanian ethnic groups, his discourse makes a claim to be scientific and to be based upon comparative anatomy. In this sense, Delestre joins the theorists who, throughout the nineteenth century, attempted to give a scientific complexion to racial prejudices when placing Blacks under the categories of violence and bestial behavior. Drawing his arguments from Pieter Camper and Julien-Joseph Virey, he saw in the Belvedere Apollo “the type of intelligence that is freed from corporeal bonds,” whereas the pug nose and the prognathous jaw of the Black man are the marks of the latter’s being disposed toward violent passions and of an association with the animal world. Yet we must insist upon the following point: this perception of radical otherness is grounded upon drawings he did on the basis of plaster casts preserved in the Museum’s anthropological collections [fig. 1]. Consequently, most of the visages that embody disparaged racial types reproduce the specific defects of the casting process, namely, a slightly sagging face and, especially, a blank stare. Let us not forget in this last respect that the physiognomic tradition never ceased to repeat the old saw that the eyes are the windows of the soul.

        Be that as it may, one can notice, in Delestre’s statements, multiple tensions between, on the one hand, a humanist and republican ideal and, on the other, racist positions he shared with a number of men of his age who were ranked among its liberals. Here it is that the pregnancy of his aesthetic criteria is played out in full. The argument that the Belvedere Apollo extolled by Winckelmann might serve as a paragon of beauty and, at the same time, as a criterion in the hierarchy of the human races was quite widespread at the time, for example in the writings of Victor Courtet de l’Isle. Let us recall that Apollo’s head had also served as a foil for Philippe Pinel’s congenital idiot, another incarnation of the deviation from a norm that, obviously, is an aesthetic norm. Coming from an academic artistic educational background, Delestre grounded this aesthetic norm upon an ideal of harmony he claimed was infallible. This was the ideal of ancient statuary, but also that of painters whose integrity supposedly manifested itself in their works as much as through their faces, with Raphael’s features radiating the sweetness of his divine sketch pen, those of Poussin the nobility and measuredness of his works [fig. 2], those of Eustache Lesueur the human qualities of calm and mellowness found in his most beautiful canvases.(2)
        Delestre, as one sees, remained beholden to a Romantic anthropology that, not by accident, had been so inviting to artists. During the second half of the nineteenth century, this science was nevertheless marked by a major change, since, with Paul Broca in France, Louis Agassiz and Samuel George Morton in the United States, its representatives had endeavored to substitute the objective precision of numbers and measurements for visual guesswork. It is significant that in Broca’s writings, the skulls he examined did not give rise to any considerations of an aesthetic sort: such skulls are no longer beautiful or ugly, harmonious or awkward; rather, they are weighed, measured, and classified in terms of mathematical ratios.

On the Beauty of Social Utility

        The second division emerging from Delestre’s observations contrasts useful individuals and harmful individuals, and this along various lines, the sharpest contrast being between the innocent and the guilty: “Innocence summons light upon an ample brow. Vice sets upon the brow an indelible mark. Crime demeans the brow, tarnishing its native purity, and constrains it to bend beneath the weight of shame and infamy.” A bit further on, he underscores that the bulging of the cheekbones is a “fatal sign” allowing one to spot a killer. After Lavater’s fascination with the physiognomy of Judas comes, in Delestre, the fascination he feels for the murderer Pierre-François Lacenaire or the attempted regicide Joseph Fieschi [fig 3]. In the same vein, he declares, “Bushy and unkempt eyebrows are found in rough-skinned, undisciplined, fierce men who find they are out of place in the society of people who love formality and politeness. We have seen many examples of them in prisons, among old draft evaders, whose sentences have been extended because they have resisted prison rules.” This last excerpt shows how, throughout the work, the reader is carried back and forth time and again between biological determinism and social utilitarianism. In this regard, the role reserved for women is rather illuminating: in one of his previous works, Delestre had underscored how woman, who is more sensitive than man on account of her organic constitution, offers a disconcerting variability in physiognomy, her face moving with such rapidity, “a true Proteus, ceaselessly escaping and always reconstituting herself.”(3) In a continuation of the hygienic tradition, this time he criticizes all those women who do their utmost to destroy their underlying nature with the aid of constrictive prostheses. Of course, that absolutely does not keep him from claiming that physical rectitude of the body is the sign of moral uprightness and that, conversely, the sinuous or curved body is characteristic of profiteers, courtesans, and flatterers who live at the expense of society.
        In an edifying chapter, he goes so far as to propose a typology of the figures of political liberty, offering for our review an entire series of profiles of scientists, teachers, artisans, and workers, in other words, representatives of all social classes, all of them animated by the same sense of civic integrity and the same level of democratic commitment. And yet, a few pages further on, the hierarchy between the upper and lower halves of the body makes an eloquent return and io?s combined with a compensatory principle that supposedly determines the development of one’s organs. Thus does Delestre contrast the volume of the brow, a function of the qualities of an intellectual, with the thickness of the hands of the peasant, the artisan, and the worker—an exaltation of labor, which he makes into one of the cardinal virtues of French society: “The thick hand,” he writes, “devolves upon those most unfortunate in the distribution of intellectual gifts.” Carried away with an enthusiastic sense of fraternity that was customary for him, he adds, a few pages later: “If, as artist, we seek as models beautiful hands with smooth contours, as a citizen, we enjoy placing our hand in the rugged hand of the self-sufficient worker.” It is unlikely that one would have to at all costs separate the “artist” from the “citizen”: as with a number of his contemporaries, enthusiastic expressions of brotherhood are coupled with a “picturesque” perception of the worker and the peasant, a perception to which the canvases of a Julien-Bastien Lepage or the photos of a Charles Nègre bear witness during this same period of time.

        We need not review the entire set of visual codes Delestre employed in order for us to understand that the representatives of all kinds of social deviancy bear the indelible stigmata of their degradation, whereas good citizens attest to their level of social integration through their bodies, but also through their clothing, their gestures, their writing, and even their voices. The oscillations of a discourse that continually mixes the primacy of the biological with the argument for social modeling are reinforced by the wholly random set of criteria for judgment the illustrations advance. Thus, the most marginal individuals are often presented in profile, whereas the socially integrated figures generally benefit from the effects of a three-quarter portrait, fitted out with clothing, finery, even a whole gamut of mustaches, whiskers, and beards, examples of which multiply along with the number of professional hairdressers.

A Physiognomic Perspicacity

        Having reached this point, it seems difficult to consider this testament of a book written by Jean-Baptiste Delestre as some sort of mere curiosity that would be, at the very most, of anecdotal interest. Far from that, it poses a number of problems, notably that of the connections between physical appearance, moral content, and social utility, the worst consequences of which have yet to be drawn. Of course, the obsessions to which it testifies must also be placed back within a context already described and analyzed by a number of historians—that of the fear of race- and caste-mixing within nineteenth-century society(4), a social anxiety heightened even more, in the French capital, by the disorderly urban growth characteristic of the life of Parisians. Louis Chevalier has underscored the confluence of demands for visibility and salubrity in an urban setting that began to make themselves heard under the July Monarchy.(5) Various procedures aimed at establishing transparency and control were then envisaged, among which physiognomy in its different incarnations was able to find its place. And it is not an accident that, like most supporters of this pseudo-science, Delestre exhibits a genuine obsession with dissimulation, fraud, cosmetics, in short, everything that might, according to him, harm the readability of the social body. He went so far as to declare that he could identify the character of an individual solely by an examination of that individual’s clothing. Anticipating the method of Sherlock Holmes, he spots the drunkard or the slacker simply by inspecting his shoes in the back of a cobbler’s shop, perceiving therein “all the vices to which idleness gives rise like germs and ripens like worm-eaten fruits,” quite the opposite of the bright and shiny boot of the gendarme, in which he recognizes “the bearing of a civil servant who looks after public safety as well as himself.” Obviously, the mention of germs and of worm-eaten fruits is not an innocent metaphor. It shows to what extent such a discourse stems from a perception of the social field that would from then on operate on the biological model: the survival of society is dependent upon the vitality and smooth functioning of each individual. Let it be recalled that this biological solidarity among the different components of the social body will end up being reinforced by the Pasteurian revolution and by the intrusion of the germ into people’s imaginaries.

The Virtues of the Counter-Model

        While it is beyond dispute that the supporter of physiognomy will be able, according to Delestre, to aid in the effort to purge society of individuals who are “the residue of the social scum,” what remains is to mention the role he assigns to the artist in this march toward a structured, transparent, and harmonious world. In a first stage, while referring to the sculptors of classical Antiquity, Delestre seems to be content to paraphrase Winckelmann’s emulators: Greek statuary, he says in substance, shows how the baring of the physical body may reveal the moral qualities of exceptional men. In following this example and by exploiting the resources of physiognomy, the artist will be able to unveil their underlying nature, which lies hidden from the gaze of the routine observer. Faithful in this respect to the artistic ideas current at the end of the Enlightenment, Delestre confers upon art a duty of edification and imagines that public monuments erected to celebrate great men will be able, via emulation, to have a beneficial effect upon citizens.

        Curiously, it is in his short chapter on caricature that the social and civic role he assigns to art and to artists is sketched out most clearly. Himself a practitioner, Delestre was not unaware that caricature is a physiognomic procedure: Did it not consist in uncovering the true being beneath the appearance of individual traits or social pretenses, which it magnifies to the point of rendering them grotesque? Quite appropriately, he mentions on this score the bustes-charges of Jean-Pierre Dantan, a series of portraits in plaster, cast-iron, and bronze representing the celebrities of the age. Dantan, whose own work bears witness to an interest in physiognomy, phrenology, and anthropology, had brought together these caricatural effigies of his contemporaries at the Dantan Museum in his Parisian townhouse, 41 rue Blanche. In their Journal, dated March 2, 1864, the Goncourts described the place as a “Pantheon of human ugliness” in which “you are overcome by a desire to leave, as when you find yourself face to face with all physiognomy’s forms of the horrible, the depressing, and the animal.” Thinking, no doubt, of this strange gallery of celebrities, Delestre declared that society might gain a great deal from the public exhibition of effigies that would reveal for all to see the physiognomic clues to this or that public figure. Unlike Dantan, he does not rule out politicians bearing the brunt of such revelations; each visitor, he concludes, could draw all due inferences from the sudden emergence of the virtues of the counter-model.


1. One encounters this old binary opposition particularly in the work of Jérôme Fracastor, Marin Cureau de la Chambre, Bernard Lamy, and Condillac, as well as, to take an example of one of Delestre’s contemporaries, in that of Emil Huschke.
2. As one knows, this physiognomy of the ”honest and upright” artist was more and more often being contrasted, during this same years, with the sickly and degenerate genius criticized by Joseph Moreau de Tours (1830), Benedict-August Morel (1857), and  Cesare Lombroso (1863).
3. Jean-Baptiste Delestre, Études des passions appliquées aux Beaux-Arts (Paris, 1833 [1845]), p. 201.
4. See, especially, Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1974; New York: Vintage, 1978), p. 20.
5. Louis Chevalier, Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses à Paris pendant la première moitié du XIXe siècle (1958; Paris: Perrin, 2002), pp. 242ff


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Fig. 1 Jean-Baptiste Delestre, Front view and profile of Menalaguena, born in Glamorgan County, Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania (1866)

Fig. 2 Jean-Baptiste Delestre, Nicolas Poussin (1866)


Fig. 3 Jean-Baptiste Delestre, Profile of Lacenaire (1866)