Physiognomy: The "Science" of Face Reading

Physiognomy is judgement of a person’s character by the facial features. It has persisted for thousands of years in many cultures, even mentioned by Aristotle and the medieval scholars. During times of great emotional and social upheaval, it is comforting for many to claim control over forces they can’t or don’t understand. Human behavior is one of those forces.

The word "Physiognomy"

is from the Greek: “Physis” meaning ‘nature’ and “Gnomon” meaning ‘judge’ or ‘interpreter’.

The connection between silhouettes (profile portraits) and physiognomy is obvious: people who want to know what their own face “showed” of their personality, had their profiles made to expert exactness as to ‘read’ their outward appearance.

1500's: The medieval thinkers believed that what you looked like confessed your personality.

The Medieval Thinkers 

had a main idea about human behavior: “like resembles like”. If a human resembled a certain animal, then the person’s behavior could be judged as similar to that animal’s behavior. People could be easily classified and “understood”. In a world that didn’t understand the human body or atmospheric forces, this was a perfectly rational idea of [human] behavior.

In the 1770s,

Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater developed a treatise that codified and “explained” a more scientific and spiritual dimension of the link between facial features and behavior – or rather, human character, which informed behavior. Lavater, deeply interested in the passions that swayed men, stated:

  1. Our facial bones are soft, and therefore very malleable by forces inside of us.
  2. Our [internal] passions are strong, and therefore can move those soft bones into predictable patterns.
  3. These outward signs (ie: facial features) of the predictable patterns of passions, also considered character and behavior, can be read by people well-studied in these mysteries.

Johann Lavater, a Swiss pastor, wrote books that described facial features' meanings. He thought that each trait of the facial features gave clues to one's innate goodness - or evil.

Lavater’s writings were published frequently in many languages, and updated for decades. One main reason that his books were so popular is that they offered “scientific” reasons and ‘codes’ for patterns seen in every face. His books meticulously reviewed each facial feature in detail, providing a black-and-white view of intelligence . . and stupidity; those people to trust . .. and those to discard; . . . and ethnic commentary based on facial features.

Physiognomy was seen (and used) in almost every facet of social living, starting in the Colonial era (1770s) and moving through the Revolutionary (1770-1780s) into the Federal period (1790-1820) and into the Antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, and even into our modern era. Here are a few examples.

  • Physiognomy preferences shaped how artists portrayed their patrons’ portraits. It was considered unprofessional for many decades during the 18th century for artists to show how a subject truthfully looked in real life. Instead, it was aesthetically and socially preferred to present the physiognographically “correct” view of the most honorable characteristics that the subject should instill into the viewer. Many of our famous portraits show these Physiognomic influences.
  • Moneyed citizens became wild for physiognomy. They had their profile-portraits taken with the greatest of exactness, especially with the newly-patented tracing machines (starting in the 1790s), especially to identify their own character traits that others could be reading on their own faces. Silhouettes became very popular not only to give portraits, but to learn one's own personality traits given away by the face.
  • European, British, and American society continued using Physiognomy to pre-judge people for activities such as lending money, allowing marriage, employing a job applicant. Imagine being turned down for a loan because your chin looked like you might not pay the money back.
  • Famous people were affected by Physiognomy - it's been said that Charles Darwin was at first turned down to participate in the voyage of the HMS Beagle due to what his nose said about him

There are so many more stories...

A Physiognomy reading is a rare experience in modern days. While it is a more common occurrence in China even today, (under its Chinese name Mian Xiang Xue  面相学 or or simply Xiang Xue  相学), many westerners may not realize how common a practice is was to be pre-judged by the facial features alone. There are very few modern western practitioners.

Physiognomy is still in the news - just recently in Jan, 2015, an article in Wired Magazine reviews the Physiognomy that Lauren already speaking about for years in her presentations (below)

Bring Physiognomy to your Event

The "Physiognomy noses" display was handmade by Lauren Muney to help visitors spot their own nose traits.

Silhouettes By Hand's Lauren Muney has taught herself Physiognomy to be used at events and in museum experiences, educating formally or informally about prejudice and early psychology. While Silhouettes By Hand‘s physiognomy is purely for fun, the educational aspects about prejudgement and deep observation are emphasized. 

Impress your visitors and guests:

If you are a museum or facility that wants to bring physiognomy interpretation (with our without silhouette portraiture) to your event, contact Lauren.

Perfect for Museum and History events

Since the “modern” introduction of physiognomy was reborn in 1774, Silhouettes By Hand‘s physiognomy is a perfect offering for history-based- and history-themed events. Interactive Physiognomy has a number of ways it is presented, including individual face-readings and also self-study by the visitors.

The introductory slide from the "Heads in History" presentation. This example was at a museums conference.

"Heads in History"

Silhouettes By Hand offers its “Heads in History” presentation – teaching about each subject starting from the Greeks, and comparing and explaining the differences between phrenology (‘reading the bumps of the head’) and physiognomy (facial features). Learn the differences between the ideas of prejudgement and self-help from those character-reading “sciences”.

"Meet your Neighbor": Perfect for Galas, Corporate and Other Events

If an event is interested in a group experience (especially as an icebreaker), there is “Meet Your Neighbor” program for events, or choose to bring Lauren to read individual faces at your social, corporate, or tradeshow event.


Physiognomy readings are offered purely for fun, for educational purposes, and will not be presented in any manner to scare or concern the customer about his or her personality. All kindness is offered, especially knowing that many people are sensitive about what Mother Nature has given them. All readings are done with a nod towards the historic depth of the “science”.