THE value and significance of the human face is hardly appreciated in our industrial life. So many of us are intent upon the same thing that all our faces have but one meaning ; so much monotony, very often ignoble, is tiresome. We are classified by our life, and fall under a type, —either the clerical, the mercantile, or the political type. The unending succession of variations of these types is not stimulating to artists or poets. The novelist, to find a subject that interests him, has to go down to the picturesque and vagabond classes. He carefully avoids the respectable ; they may point his moral, but cannot adorn his tale.
In that great period of modern Europe which succeeded to the Middle Ages, and called man from renunciations and asceticisms to his natural life, which completely set aside mediaeval inspirations, and gave us the natural and humanizing works of Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Titian, and Tintoret, of Rabelais, Montaigne, Corneille, Cervantes, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, — spirits that fed themselves at those twin sources of all good and all beauty, nature and Greek antiquity,— the human face was a poem, individual, charged with its own burden of meaning, marked with the character of its personal and uncommon experience. But to-day we have so systematized everything, our social life is so perfectly organized, we are in such public and close communion, that we have obliterated all striking differences ; we resemble each other. All of us have the same story to tell; we tell it in the same language; we carefully avoid a peculiar experience and an uncommon expression. The press and the pulpit have given the people fade phrases and trite sentiment in place of the racy and fresh expressions which were the outcome of their occupation and of their idiosyncrasies of character.
In our country, which is the most perfect result of modern ideas, the uniformity of life, and consequent uniformity of faces, is more apparent than in continental Europe ; for in Europe there are whole populations not yet out of mediaeval ideas, others that yet remain bound to those of the First Empire. There are provinces in the middle of France that live by the ideas and passions of the sixteenth century. In Bretagne, for example, it is said that the peasants have the naive faith of the time of the good king Saint Louis, and live entirely in the thirteenth century. Among such people you find the average face is not to be classed as clerical, political, or mercantile ; as that of trader, gambler, or grasper.
From the provinces of France, from the heart of the solitary and simple life of the country, young men go to Paris. They make the glory of France. They are not modelled after common types ; they have not been made by newspapers and pulpits ; they are themselves. One day it was Rabelais from Chinnon, Montaigne from Perigord, Napoleon from Corsica, Lamennais from Saint-Malo, Lamartine from Macon, Millet from Greville. Although Moliere, Rousseau, and George Sand, three great personalities, three remarkable faces, were born in cities, the life of Rousseau derived all its beauty and all its literary charm from his experience in the country ; the same may be said of George Sand. As for Moliere, he lived at a time when Paris, still a mediæval city, occupied by the powdered and ruffled and ribboned gallants of the court of Louis XIII., was varied and picturesque.
We build so rapidly to-day, that, unlike our ancestors, who always lived in the houses of their forefathers, we live in our own shells, and our cities always correspond with the actual generation. The monotony and system of our life does not produce individuals, but general types of a common character. What we call the American face is high-browed, cold-eyed, thinlipped ; it has a dry skin, long nose, high cheek-bones ; it is a face wholly devoid of poetry, of sentiment, of tenderness, of imagination ; it is a keen, sensible, calculating, aggressive face, certainly not a face to fascinate or love. It is most interesting when it is most ugly, like the good Lincoln’s. Happily, he was an individual that no system, no routine, no official life, could destroy or make negative. But how many public functionaries thought he had a poor face ! The average American face has not the interest to me of Lincoln’s ; it is not so noble, so good. Lincoln’s face, full of rude forms, expressed a simple, benevolent, thoughtful spirit.
On the Continent you will meet with a vast variety of physiognomies, individual, suggestive, and often full of charm. The ugliest faces, I suppose, are to be found at Bale. The Swiss women of the lower classes are absurdly ugly. A walk through Bale explained to me why Holbein was the greatest painter of ugly faces that the world has produced, or is likely ever to produce. But I am to speak especially of faces seen at Paris.
In a students’ restaurant of the Quartier Latin, for example, I have observed romantic and beautiful faces of young men. One, perhaps from the South of France, had a warm, bronzed skin, warm eyes, abundant black hair falling upon either side of a low, square, white forehead. He had a dreamy, brooding face. It had no trace of trade or machinery ; it was like a troubadour’s song ; his hair reminded me of the curls of Antinous in the Louvre. Certainly I enjoyed taking my dinner opposite to him. He was far better to me than one of the million duplicates of Young America, whose face is bare of poetry, romance, and sentiment. The face of the young American, regular, handsome, full of energy, will, decision, shows too much the domination of purely material things.
At one time I became interested in two brothers. They were twins, about twenty - five, with comical, libidinous faces. They always dined with company, bubbled with laughter and fun, and sang half the time. They were law students. When they ate and drank and sang, in spite of their very proper clothes they seemed like two fauns strayed into modern Paris. If they were, happy for the jury that shall listen to their pleading, and happy the judge who shall hear their citations. They revived a chapter of pagan mythology, and suggested all the sport of their ancestors. Nature was in full force in their great awkward bodies.
The women faces of Paris are of an indescribable variety. Paris draws to herself, at one time or another, the most beautiful women of the provinces. Paris is the gallery in which they are best seen, the salon where they will be the most admired. The gay and unrestrained Parisian does not withhold the expression of his feeling as the Englishman does.
At the public balls you will remark the rare beauty of the girls,— girls and women of the people. The black-eyed or blond Parisian, slender, graceful, nervous, all fire and action; or the peasant-girl, large, round, soft, ruddy, quiet. One obscure Paris model, I knew, was a tall blond Lombard girl, with luxuriant tawry hair, which, always in “admired disorder,” was simply drawn back and twisted on the head. She loved Victor Hugo’s books, was a Red Republican, and would have fought and sung on the barricades like an Amazon of Liberty, with the same careless spirit that she sang and sat in Parisian studios. She had eyes blue as her own Adriatic, a finely formed full mouth, a fair skin, and a superb neck, well placed. She carried her head like a swan. Although poor, almost homeless, no social slavery had touched her. Her face was wild and free like a Bacchante’s. A great painter could have found an immortal type in her large noble face and heroic figure, — could have seen under the rags of her poverty an antique virgin, sister of the Venus of Milo. How long would an artist have to hunt in New York or Boston for such a type! We produce one type, — “ the girl of the period,” — who generally overdresses, who is pert and trivial, who is intelligent and vivacious, but dreams just as little as her brother the clerk or her father the banker. They have but one idea, — it is to advance. The girl of the Continent dreams, feels poetry, is impressionable, naïve, and has sentiment ; if of the people, she is generous, and respects her impulses. I have seen in Paris, at the public concerts, French girls, white and blond, demure and frail, delicate like New England Sunday-school teachers; looking at them, you could not expect anything but a tract or a hymn, but they give you something very different.
A type very often seen is the beautiful dark woman, with an oval face, dead olive skin, very pale, Oriental eyes stained with henna, hair in great fiat bands on the temples, coiled and twisted behind,— a type admired by Gautier, Baudelaire, and De Musset; the kind of woman of whom De Musset wrote, “ Two destroying angels, sweet and cruel, walk invisible at her side; they are Voluptuousness and Death.”
But let us look upon celebrated faces ; there is Nillson, she who is loved and admired by all Paris. I have seen her modest and girlish face, heard her sweet voice. Such a face makes critics eloquent and versifiers poets. The French commit excesses in describing her. A writer, in one of the first Reviews, tried to express the meaning of her eyes, and wrote: “The eye of Christine Nillson, now green, now of a limpid blue with gold reflections, has the cold and cruel beauty of the blinding and shivering suns of the Falberg, always crowned with snow and ice ; and it also resembles that gulf of the Maelstrom about which Edgar Poe speaks to us, —the strange and ravishing sensation with which it confounds the spectator, — strange indeed ! From afar, vague and fleeting apparition, night crowned with stars, — that slender figure from the North, when you see her close by, shows features largely cut as in the antique statues ; the cheeks and the chin are solid and reassuring like strength.” This interesting verbal extravagance has some meaning, and helps me to appreciate the suggestiveness of the Swedish face of Christine Nillson.
Another remarkable face at Paris was Charles Baudelaire’s. At twentyone, rich, handsome, having written his first verses, — his face was said to have been of a rare beauty. The eyebrow pure, long, of a great sweep, covered warm Oriental eyes, vividly' colored ; the eye was black and deep, it embraced, questioned, and reflected whatever surrounded it; the nose graceful, ironical, with forms well defined, the end somewhat rounded and projecting, made me think of the celebrated phrase of the poet: My soul flutters over perfumes, as the souls of other men flutter over music. The mouth was arched, and refined by the mind, and made one think of the splendor of fruits. The chin was rounded, but of a proud relief, strong like that of Balzac. The brow was high, broad, magnificently designed, covered with silken hair, which, naturally curly, tell upon a neck like that of Achilles.
Theodore Rousseau had a face that was said to resemble one of the black bulls of his own Jura ; Courbet, called handsome,resembles an Assyrian, Gautier, a Turkish Pacha ; Ingres’s face resembled that of a civilized goriila. He was probably' the ugliest and most obstinate man in Europe, — obstinate like Thiers. The noble and beautiful head of George Sand, so superbly drawn by Couture, resembles the Venus of Milo. Her large, tranquil eyes are almost as celebrated as her romances ; they are brooding and comprehensive ; they suggest sacred and secret things. Liszt had an uncommon face ; “ nervous, floating loose, all the emotions of his music, all the fantasies of his improvisation passed upon his countenance, quick as his fingers ran upon the keys, — a moved, strange, and always inspired face.” A French portrait-painter, who had the talent of an antique medalist, abstracted all the fleeting expressions from Liszt’s face, and “ in place of an ephemeral man seemed to have copied an immortal statue.”
French artists have painted some of the greatest modern heads. Lamennais by Scheffer, Napoleon III. by Flandrin, George Sand by Couture, Cherubini by Ingres, — what American faces and portraits shall we place beside these ? Lincoln by Marshall ? Chief Justice Shaw by Hunt? and the late Mr. Furness’s portraits of women ? they do not represent so much science nor so much art as the foreign work.
Flandrin’s Napoleon is extraordinary. It expresses a still intensity. It is a “ gray, sad, stern, heavy, tiresome, bad face.” Not as art, but as character, we place by the side of it Napoleon’s immortal American contemporary, Marshall’s engraving of the good Lincoln ; it is a sad, kind, simple, generous face.
Delacroix had “ a rude, square face, small vivid black eyes, that shot their glance from under projecting brows and reminded one of an etching of Rembrandt. He had a profound and melancholy smile, a thin, open, trembling nostril ; his mouth was firmly formed, was like a bent bow ; from it he lanced his bitter words. He was not beautiful in the eyes of good citizens, but he had a radiant and spiritual face, intense with emotion and thought. Storms had passed over it.”
The only two French faces that resemble Americans that I know are those of Favre and Ollivier. Emile Ollivier looks like a Bostonian, and, at the first glance, Jules Favre like a New England clergyman. But as you look at Favre’s bold and aggressive face, you find in it that indescribable something which all foreign faces have, which scarcely any American face has, which I suppose is the result of sentiments and pictures, and statues and music, and of things that never touch an American’s life, but which are the habitual experience of a Frenchman. His face has not the hardness and coldness of our own, it seems to have a greater range of expression, is more mobile, and fuller in gradation ; even Guizot’s, thin and poor like a parson’s, severe like a theologian’s, has a look that assures you he has not spent his life upon local things.
The variety of the type of face upon the Continent, and especially in Paris, is not only to be attributed to the greater play of the social life, but also to the greater variety of aesthetic influences that act upon individuals. There can be no question but that women, when most impressionable, fix and repeat the impressions which they receive ; and that a population daily familiarized with the most beautiful forms and heads of antiquity, the most beautiful paintings of the Italian masters, must reproduce some of the fine traits which they have contemplated while walking in the Louvre or in the public gardens.
The "influence of art” is either a beautiful fiction or an impressive and beautiful reality; the population of Paris makes me believe it is a reality. Walking the streets, I have seen just such faces as glow in color or shine in the marble of statues in the galleries of the Louvre. The low brows and full lips of the Egyptian sphinxes, the faces of Assyrian kings, the slender and elegant forms of the Etruscans, preserved with costly care in the public museums, free to the people, are repeated by French mothers. It is well that a race so mobile, so impressionable, surround themselves with grand and beautiful forms, with things that enrich the life. If their habitual life were as bare of such objects of enthusiastic contemplation as is the life of most American mothers, facial traits would inevitably degenerate to flat monotony, become debased, and poor in suggestion. When you observe a beautiful face in Paris, it is generally classic, or at least you can refer it back to some historic type. It may be a living illustration of some Greek or Italian form, perhaps it is light,— charming, pleasant, like Watteau’s dames, all sunny gayety ; or it is a sweet, soft, innocent, voluptuous face, like one of Greuze’s girls.
In going through our portrait-galleries, the annual array of the Academy of Design, we encounter insignificant and pretentious faces, vulgar faces, hard faces, stupid faces, faces of men sitting to be looked at, rarely one that looks at you and holds you with the glance, like Titian’s grand heads. We do not admire our fellow-citizens on canvas or in photographs. Seldom do we find a face so forceful as that of Parke Godwin’s, worthy model for Rembrandt, or like Sandford R. Gifford’s, worthy model for Titian or Velasquez, or Dr. Brownson’s face, which was so vigorously painted by Healy. These are exceptions, for S. R. Gifford looks more like one of Titian’s portraits than like an average American ; Parke Godwin looks like a Tintoret, and Bryant like one of Fuseli’s bards civilized.
Béranger had a beautiful face ; it beamed with a genial and fatherly spirit ; Lamennais, with his immense brow and piercing eyes, looked like a converted Mephistopheles still troubled with questions, the most purely intellectual and intense of human faces, — to me a terrible face; then there was the extraordinary face of Michel the advocate, described by George Sand in Histoire de ma Vie, looking as if he had two craniums, one soldered upon the other; the sign of all the high faculties of the soul not more prominent at the prow than the generous instincts were at the stern of the strong vessel. At the first glance, although but thirty, he looked sixty years old.
When you enter the French Chamber of Deputies, you are struck with the resemblance to American faces, but they are more refined. The men of state all over the world have the same general traits. It is only by watching the play of emotion and the movement of thought that you notice the difference. Then you see that they have thoughts that are not our thoughts, and are qualified by fine and exquisite things. In one word, they have a refined scale of emotions unknown to us.
The human face is a sublime, a beautiful, a mysterious revelation. The life experience traces itself upon the living clay, and for a brief moment the soul looks through a splendid mask of time, transfigured or disfigured by bodily habits, vices, or passions. Most faces are bad imitations of animals; I say bad, because the animal type is confused, not in its perfection when mixed with the human. The most animal types are the Roman heads.
It is a great misfortune to be preoccupied with vulgar or trivial things; they cannot make the heroic face. The reason that poets have such beautiful faces, in spite of habits like Burns’s and Poe’s, is that they contemplate beautiful things and think grand and generous thoughts. All the great painters have been handsome and remarkable looking men ; Titian, and Raphael, and Rubens, and Vandyke readily illustrate my statement. Tintoret had a solemn and grand face; Da Vinci, a noble and beautiful face ; Rembrandt, a sagacious, honest, profound face. Our fine sculptors, Brown, Ward, Palmer, and Thompson, have something Continental about their faces, and do not look narrow, but as if illuminated by a ray of the ideal. The finest faces in Europe were the faces of Shakespeare, Molière, and Goethe. Their faces prove to us that just in the measure that we escape sordid thoughts and material cares, and occupy our minds with the beauty of nature, the wit of men, the poetry of life, we set to work a skilful sculptor, who day by day models with an imperceptible and sure hand the heavy, expressionless clay; and in time the rude features become almost grand with goodness like Lincoln’s, beautiful with tranquillity like Washington’s, or Titanic like Webster’s.
Let us imitate the Greeks, the most beautiful of all the historic races, or the Etruscans, which were the most elegant, and recommend to the women of the land to place in their houses the statues of antique heroes, the pictures of beautiful women. Each generation should be the perfected illustration of all that we admire or ought to admire. But let us dispense with cast-iron dogs, deer, and nymphs, manufactured by enterprising Americans for our country homes. The worse than barbarous taste shown in these hideous imitations of reality must make a lover of the beautiful despair. We have got to learn that statues and fountains and vases cannot be made as we make sewing-machines and steam-ploughs ; that a cast-iron dog, from a poor model, does not take the place of the antique boar of the Tuileries or the Lion of Barye.
It is because poets and painters and men of science are admitted into the universal life that their faces lose mean, local traits and resemble each other. The noblest men are not national, but universal. When we think great actions, we look them ; when we entertain dreams and have sentiment, we look it, as Hawthorne, as Shelley, as Keats. The face betrays the thought. What would Whittier’s face be without the poetry that has flown over it ? What is any face that has not been touched, shaped, developed by those invisible influences which come to us from the ideal world and nature, which we call art, science, music? If we spend our days monotonously, like fabricators of pins, we must drain our faces of even what we being from our anterior life ; and how soon most of us lose the traces of that life which in childhood gives such a magic and innocent depth to the eye, which remains sometimes in boyhood and youth, — a wide-eyed, bewildered expression, as if to say the soul does not yet understand why it is subjected to the enormous pressure of prosaic and deadening circumstances accumulated by the machinery of social life.