The Best Edition

LAVATER (Johann Kaspar) Essai sur la physiognomonie, destiné à faire connoître l’homme et à le faire aimer. (French translation by Mme de La Fite & MM. Caillard et Henri Renfer).

Imprimé à La Haye, [Jacques Van Karnebeek], (1781)-1786 (volumes I-III), & La Haye, I. van Cleef, 1803 (volume IV).

4 volumes large 4to, later richly gilt fawn calf over paper boards, spines with red and green lettering pieces, all edges gilt. (1) Title with engraved vignette, X-294 pp., (4) pp. errata & notice to the bookbinder; (2) VIII pp. (of which the title with engraved vignette), 404 pp., (2) pp. Notice to the bookbinder; (3) VIII pp. (of which the title with engraved vignette), 360 pp., (4) pp. Avis au public & notice to the bookbinder; (4) VIII pp. (of which the half-title and the title with engraved vignette), 328 pp. of text and table.

4 engraved title vignettes, 498 figures in the text signed Chodowiecki, Berger, Lips, Schellenberg, Stumpf and others, 193 plates of types and portraits of famous people (Voltaire, Vésale, Descartes, Newton, Locke, George Washington, etc) copper-engraved by Lips, Eckardt, Fiesinger, Haid, Rieter, Schwarz, Schellenberg and others after Leonardo, Dürer, Michelangelo, Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens, Hogarth, Duplessis, Chodowiecki and others. Complete.

First French Edition of the most famous physiognomy treatise.

The work was first published in German in 1772 under the title “Von der Physiognomik” in two volumes unillustrated. The French edition was based on Lavater’s revised and augmented manuscript version and published over a period of twenty-two years under his supervision. It is considered the best edition of this work and is much sought after for the beauty of its illustrations which are of much better quality than in the second German edition of 1775-78.

The science of physiognomy aiming at reading character and other psychological traits from outer physical signs, especially those of the face, has its roots in antiquity. As early as 500 B.C., Pythagoras was accepting or rejecting students based on how gifted they “looked”. Aristotle wrote that large-headed people were mean, those with small faces were steadfast, broad faces reflected stupidity, and round faces signaled courage. Physiognomy – from the ancient Greek, gnomos (character) and physis (nature), hence “the character of one’s nature” – really became popular again in 16th century Europe, as physicians, philosophers, and scientists searched for tangible, external clues to internal temperaments. In the early 1600s, Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta, considered the father of physiognomy, was instrumental in spreading ideas about character and appearance in Europe. Della Porta came up with the idea for physiognomy through his alchemical experiments, in which he attempted to boil down and distill from substances their “tincture,” or pure essence. He made an analogy to the human essence, suggesting that one could deduce an individual’s character from empirical observation of his physical features. His widely disseminated book on the subject, De humana physiognomia, was instrumental in spreading physiognomy throughout Europe.

In the second half of the 18th century, the Swiss poet and cleric Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) became the new king of physiognomy. He blended an examination of silhouette, the profile, portraiture, and proportions into his best-selling book, Essays on Physiognomy, which included a detailed reading of the face broken down into its major pieces, including the eyes, brows, mouth, and nose. The expression “stuck-up” comes from this time, when a person with a nose bending slightly upwards was read as having a contemptuous, superior attitude (Sarah Waldorf, Getty). From an early age Lavater was intrigued by faces. He learned to sketch the people around him, and later he explained that this pastime sharpened his sense of proportion, resemblance and dissimilitude. The Zürich pastor began to collect portraits, silhouettes and other engravings. These eventually became his “Kunstkabinett”, an astonishing collection of 25000 paintings, drawings and engravings. Soon he believed that he had a special gift for discerning a person’s inner workings from his exterior and he devoted much of the rest of his life to working out his physiognomical theories. Following the success of the German edition of his work which codified and systematized physiognomy for the first time, Lavater worked on a revised French edition. Many re-editions followed and by the early 19th century Lavater was known throughout Europe and America. As well as influencing human behaviour – there is evidence that people used physiognomy in their choice of servants and even spouses – Lavater’s Physiognomy had a significant impact on art, literature, medicine and the emerging social sciences (Melissa Percival).

Hinges a bit weak, faint marginal foxing to a few plates, small marginal stain on plate 1 of volume II, faint dampstain on plate1-2 of volume III. Generally a very good copy.

Ref. Brunet, III, 887 / Cohen-Ricci, 606 / Hoefer, Nouvelle biographie générale, XXIX, 995-1005

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