Editorial of Febrary 11th 2005

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

  Pierre Wat a ninetheenth-century man
Seminar of December 10th 2004
Pierre Wat is a professor of contemporary art history at the Université de Provence. From 1999 to 2004, he was a scholarly advisor on the contemporary era at the French National Institute of Art History. A specialist of European Romanticism, Wat is the author of Naissance de l’art romantique (Paris: Flammarion, 1998) and of several works on John Constable, including a monograph, Constable, published by Hazan in 2002. Author of numerous articles on contemporary art, in particular on painting since the Nineteen-Sixties, and on the writings of artists, he has published a monograph on Pierre Buraglio (Paris: Flammarion, 2001). His research on “Supports/Surfaces,” begun with this work, has led him to start a new publication project devoted to the work of Claude Viallat (forthcoming, Hazan, 2005).

a ninetheenth-century man

Science of Art and Scientific Art

        Jean-Baptiste Delestre is at once a central character and an eccentric figure. This is so in contemporary historiography, because this once famous “scientist” is today forgotten. But this is also true in the history of the ideas of his time, of which he appears retrospectively as one of the exemplary figures at the same time as one of those who fosters a rethinking of boundaries and definitions.

        Delestre is an exemplary figure because this artist, who pursued an aesthetic project (he was a painter) at the same time that he aspired to elaborate a scientific norm (physiognomy), fits a form of nineteenth-century “tradition”: that of the confrontation, even the fusion, of art and science. In the course of the century, that tradition went in two main, and apparently opposite, directions: on the one hand, toward the scientistic dream, Seurat, of rationalizing art with a ruler; on the other—and this is the Romantic utopia—toward an attempt to “reenchant” science, which was deemed too materialist, via the establishment of a connection with the artistic sphere.
        From the start, however, with his project Delestre upset this classical opposition. Or, more precisely, he brought out the points where one might pass between these two reputedly antagonistic paths. A physiognomist, he is right in line with Lavater, who published in German between 1775 and 1778 a work entitled Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe, a text that marks the rebirth of an already venerable practice to which Lavater attempted to give a new legitimacy in light of the scientific progress of his age. This is “a Science that is true in itself, grounded in Nature,” a science bound to become “the Science of Sciences” which Lavater wanted to build here through the alliance of science and religion. The basic postulate, the one in which Lavater’s approach finds its grounding and its justification, is that “God created Man in His Image.” Man is therefore “Symbol of God & of Nature.” Thenceforth, it is a moral duty to offer men the bases for a “natural science” that would allow one to rediscover the trace of the invisible in the visible, of the divinity in man. Natural is to be understood here as that which proceeds from nature, in opposition to the sciences invented by man. Indeed, it is God Himself who has willed that nature, qua sign, guide man toward his origin, so that he might not remain in ignorance of his Creator. “Man would be reduced to knowing nothing of the objects surrounding him as well as of himself, if in all of nature, each force, each life did not reside in something perceptibly external. The Physiognomonie is an attempt to establish a general semiotics in which all the parts of nature are restored to their dignity as signs, a semiotics that operates on a network of correspondence between inside and outside: “Physiognomy would therefore be the Science that teaches one to know the relation between the external and the internal, between the visible surface and that which encompasses the invisible, between animate and perceptible matter and the unperceivable principle that imprints this character of life upon it, between the manifested effect and the hidden force that produces it.” Here, the visible becomes the index of the invisible.

Concentration and Eccentration

        Lavater, and Delestre after him, break down the barriers raised by neo-Classicism, thus emptying the traditional opposition between inside and outside of its meaning. That opposition merely manifests, in another way, two opposing late-eighteenth-century world views—reputedly those of classicism and romanticism. Jean Starobinski formulates this opposition between the “concentric” and “eccentric” world views in L’Invention de la liberté, 1700-1789 (Paris: Skira, 1964; Paris: Flammarion, 1987):

"To this conception of a nature that tends, imperfectly, for each object, for each species, toward a central type which art will be able to become perfectly, the thought of a Diderot or of a Buffon opposes the image of a nature understood quite to the contrary as a power of variation, of divergence, of individuation. It is no longer concentric effort, it is a “continual flowing movement” that is characteristic of nature’s work: a diversifying expansion in which the energies and the original obscure fermentation of matter develop. Thenceforth, it is not the ideal type that will testify to the creative intention of nature, it is the individual; it is even, paradoxically, the kind we would consider a “monster.” Nature is no longer conceived as an intention that aims at stabilizing “central forms”; it appears as a dynamism that has the power to create all possibilities, all the chains of the great chain of beings, through the unfolding of an infinite time. Nature wants to create differences and individual nuances, not specific types. Life is the deployment of a power of differentiation, the ever new resultant of a bundle of determinisms. There is no Creator superior to the creative power of nature"(1).

        Author of a Tableau synoptique d'un cours de philosophie de la peinture d'après une théorie fondée sur la concentration et l'excentration and of an Iconographie pathologique, Delestre continually oscillated between a will to highlight the singular (the sick patient becomes here the object of an aesthetic experience) and an attempt to grasp what is lasting in the form and immutable in the character of human beings. A search for the center and a taste for the periphery, an attempt to determine a “type” and a temptation to represent the “monster”—these are so many swings that no doubt explain why this man was so famous, but also why, in an age that claims to believe in the principle of noncontradiction, he is a bit forgotten.


1. Jean Starobinski, L’Invention de la liberté, 1700-1789 (Geneva: Éditions d’Art Albert Skira, 1987), p. 118.