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Art & Theory in Baroque Europe

Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe

Charles LeBrun, Expression

The following is taken from Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves [eds.], Artists on Art (New York: Pantheon, 1945), pages 158-160

The Académie Royale, as guardian of the true tradition in the arts, held monthly lectures which, though chiefly directed towards its students, were attended by all its members. The Premier Peintre du Roi, Charles LeBrun, naturally took a leading part in these, since he was in duty bound to direct students along the right road.

The teaching of the Académie was always rigid, but in the study of "expression" it was particularly dogmatic, because gesture, attitude, and physiognomy had been an especial concern of Poussin's (who could do no wrong), and because such an interest corresponded to the psychology of the day. (In his definitions of the passions, as in his original title, LeBrun borrowed directly from Descartes' Traité des Passions.) With these analyses before him, the student did not need to run the risk of consulting nature: he had only to follow the prescription.

The text, first published in 1698, was extremely popular. The following quote is from an English translation of 1791.

At our last Assembly you were pleas'd to approve the Design which I then took to Entertain you upon Expression. It is necessary then in the first place, to know wherein it Consists.

Expression, in my Opinion, is a Lively and Natural Resemblance of the Things which we have to Represent: It is a necessary Ingredient in all the parts of Painting, and without it no Picture can be perfect; it is that which describes the true Characters of Things; it is by that, the different Natures of Bodies are distinguished; that the Figures seem to have Motion, and that every thing therein Counterfeited appears to be Real.

It is as well in the Colouring as in the Design; it ought also to be observed in the Representation of Landskip, and in the Composition of the Figures.

This, Gentlemen, is what I have endeavoured to make you observe in my past Discourses; I shall now Essay to make appear to you, that Expression is also a part which marks the Motions of the Soul, and renders visible the Effects of Passion.

As we have said, that Admiration is the first and most temperate of all the Passions, wherein the Heart feels the least disturbance, so the Face receives very little Alteration thereby; and if any, it will be only in the raising of the Eye-brows, the Ends thereof being yet parallel, the Eye will be a little more open than ordinary, and the Ball even between the Lids and without Motion, being fixed on the Object which causes the Admiration. The Mouth will be open, but will appear without Alteration any more than the other part of the Face. This Passion produces only a Suspension of Motion, to give time to the Soul to deliberate what she has to do, and to consider attentively the Object before her; if that be rare and extraordinary, out of this first and simple Motion of Admiration is engendred Esteem.

But if, instead of Scorn, the Object raises Horrour, the Eyebrow will be still more frowning than in the preceding Action; the Eye-ball instead of being in the middle of the Eye, will be drawn down to the under Lid; the Mouth will be open, but closer in the middle than at the corners, which ought to be drawn back, and by this Action makes Wrinkles in the Cheeks; the Colour of the Visage will be pale; and the Lips and Eyes something livid; this Action has some resemblance to Terrour.

Simple Love
The Motions of this Passion, when it is simple, are very soft and simple, for the Forehead will be smooth, the Eye-balls shall be turned. The Head inclined towards the Object of the Passion, the Eyes may be moderately open, the White very lively and shining, and the Eyeball being gently turned towards the Object, will appear a little sparkling and elevated; the Nose receives no Alteration, nor any of the parts of the Face; which being only filled with Spirits, that warm and enliven it, render the Complexion more fresh and lively, and particularly the Cheeks and Lips; the Mouth must be a little open, the Corners a little turn'd up, the Lips will appear moist, and this moistness may be caused by Vapours arising from the Heart.

If to Joy succeed Laughter, this Motion is expressed by the Eyebrow raised about the middle, and drawn down next the Nose, the Eies almost shut; the Mouth shall appear open, and shew the Teeth; the corners of the Mouth being drawn back and raised up, will make a wrinkle in the Cheeks, which will appear puffed up, and almost hiding the Eyes; the Face will be Red, the Nostrils open; and the Eyes may seem Wet, or drop some Tears, which being very different from those of Sorrow, make no alteration in the Face; but very much when excited by Grief.

© Christopher L. C.E. Witcombe