Charles Antoine Coypel (French, 1694-1752). Medea, ca. 1715. Pastel; 11 9/16 x 8 1/8 in. (29.4 x 20.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953 (1974.25).

NEW YORK, NY.- The representation of human emotion through facial expression has interested Western artists since antiquity. Drawn from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of drawings, prints, and photographs, the diverse works in About Face: Human Expression on Paper—portraits, caricatures, representations of theater and war—reveal how expression underpinned narrative and provided a window onto the character and motivations of the subjects, the artists, and even their audiences. The exhibition is on view from July 27 through December 13, 2015. 


Cassandra (from Twelve Characters from Shakespeare). Etched and published by John Hamilton Mortimer (British, Eastbourne 1740–1779 London), March 15, 1776. Etching. Plate: 15 5/8 x 12 11/16 in. (39.7 x 32.2 cm) Sheet: 21 7/16 x 15 15/16 in. (54.4 x 40.5 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Olga Sichel and Max Philippson, 1962 (62.557.203).

Using Charles Le Brun’s illustrations for Expressions of the Passions and Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne and Adrien Tournachon’s photographic series as touchstones, the approximately 60 works dating from the 16th through the 19th century show how artists such as Hans Hoffmann, Francisco Goya, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Thomas Rowlandson explored the animated human face. 


Hans Hoffmann (German, Nuremberg ca. 1545/1550–1591/1592 Prague), Head of a Bearded Man1579. Pen and orange-brown ink, brush and brown and black washes, heightened with white, 10-7/8 x 8-1/2 in. (27.6 x 21.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, David T. Schiff Gift, Van Day Truex and Mary Oenslager Funds, and The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1999 (1999.84).

Expression was at one time thought to reveal elements of individual character and was codified through the influential publications on physiognomy by the French artist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). In 1668 Le Brun delivered a lecture to the French Academy entitled Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière (Lecture on General and Particular Expression). When published in 1698, the text was illustrated with engravings based on the artist’s drawings—images of facial expressions that range from calm to states of agitation. Le Brun’s rational approach and precise titles were scientific in tone and distilled the chaotic variety of nature into a coherent form that had a lasting influence on European artists. The writings, which came to be known as Expressions of the Passions, were translated into different languages and influenced art theory and practice for the next two centuries. The study of expression became a key component of artistic training in art schools and academies across Europe; so much so, in fact, that by the late 18th century it had also become a rich subject of caricature and other satirical works. 


Jan Georg (Joris) van Vliet (Dutch, Deft ca. 1610–ca. 1635, After Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) (Dutch, Leiden 1606–1669 Amsterdam), Laughing Man in a Gorget1625–40. Etching; first state of two, sheet: 9 3/16 x 7 11/16 in. (23.3 x 19.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, A. Hyatt Mayor Purchase Fund, Marjorie Phelps Starr Bequest, 1983 (1983.1115.9).

In the mid-19th century, the pioneering French neurologist and physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne conducted experiments involving the application of electrical current to stimulate the animation of the face. Wishing to move beyond abstract theory and into a scientific foundation for the study of facial expression, Duchenne published a scientific grammar of human emotions to be used as study material by artists at the École des Beaux-Arts. For this purpose, Duchenne collaborated with Adrien Tournachon (brother of the famous Nadar), a photographer who specialized in portraiture, to use the evidentiary power of photography to record his experiment precisely. The resulting series of gripping photographic portraits, made between 1854 and 1856, directly follow the physiognomic tradition of Le Brun and occupy a unique place at the intersection of art, science, and sentiment. Some 30 of these portraits are presented in the installation. 

About Face: Human Expression on Paper is a collaboration between the Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, and its Department of Photographs.


Wolfgang Huber (German, Feldkirch/Vorarlberg ca. 1485/90–1553 Passau), Bust of a Man, 1522. Black and white chalk on red prepared paper. Overall: 11 9/16 x 7 7/8 in. (29.4 x 20 cm)The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, A. Hyatt Mayor Purchase Fund, Marjorie Phelps Starr Bequest, 1983 (1983.1115.9).


Sebald Beham (German, Nuremberg 1500–1550 Frankfurt, The Head of Christ Crowned with Thornsca. 1520. Woodcut. Sheet: 19 3/8 x 12 11/16 in. (49.2 x 32.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1923 (23.18).