Photography & Phrenology in the 19th Century

Photography & Phrenology in the 19th Century

Phrenology localized specific intellectual and moral traits in different areas of the skull. Published in Samuel R. Wells’s popular manual from 1869, How to Read Character, this diagram illustrates the locations of various “faculties” for a popular readership. For instance, propensities for “destructiveness” were understood to be situated just above the ear, while one’s capacity for language was supposedly revealed in the shape of the eye socket. Samuel R. Wells, How To Read Character: A New Illustrated Hand-Book of Phrenology and Physiognomy, For Students and Examiners: With a Descriptive Chart (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1890), Wellesley College Special Collections Rare Books.

The neuroanatomist Franz Josef Gall and the physician Johann Spurzheim pioneered the psuedo-science of phrenology in the early nineteenth century. They combined craniometry (the study of skulls through measurement) with theories of biological determinism (the belief that intelligence and moral capacity came from inborn traits determined by race, class, and sex) to compare and rank people according to levels of evolutionary superiority and inferiority. This hierarchy reinforced racist and sexist prejudices and justified the continued oppression of disadvantaged groups, especially Black people, American Indians, and women.

After phrenology began in Germany, it became immensely popular in Jacksonian America, where it legitimated popular narratives of“self-made” individuals. These same individuals were celebrated on the walls of portrait galleries, and their facial features became the object of study and emulation for middle-class patrons when they had their own portraits made. Phrenology and photography maintained a mutually beneficial relationship. While reproductions of photographic portraits lent “objectivity” to phrenological texts, the values associated with certain physiognomies—a “strong, Greek nose,” for example—influenced the display, use of light and shadow, and posture of sitters before the camera.

In this tour, you can learn more about how theories of phrenology impacted the public’s everyday relationship to photography and how its legacy lives on today in other forms of portraiture, from mug shots to facial recognition technology.

This tour was developed by Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography.