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Work Relationship of the human figure with that of the lion

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

Trois têtes d'hommes en relation avec le lion

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo M. Rabeau

Prints and Drawings
17th century


On March 29, 1671, Le Brun gave his lecture on the relationship between human and animal physiognomies at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, in the presence of Colbert. The analogies between human and animal features, illustrated by a series of striking drawings, are the best-known aspect of the artist's theory, which he developed to include an interpretation of facial expressions—a subject that interested him greatly.

From passions to expressions

After the publication of Descartes's Passions of the Soul (1649), Le Brun spoke to the Academy on several occasions in 1668 on the subject of General Expression and the Expression of Passions. He illustrated his lectures with a series of drawings in which he used horizontal lines to demonstrate the distortions of the human face (face-on and in profile) under the influence of various emotions. In 1671, he gave a new lecture on physiognomy, the original of which is lost; we know of a summary by Nivelon, digests by Testelin (1696) and E. Picart (1698), and a "dissertation" by Morel d’Arleux, printed as the introduction to his 1806 edition of Le Brun's plates. Le Brun addressed four specific points: the features of famous men of Antiquity and the relationship between their facial features and their personalities; human features compared to those of animals; the eyes and the eyebrows; and finally the human brain. The Louvre owns two albums containing over 250 comparative physiognomic drawings of human and animal faces.

Dehumanized man, humanized animal

Descartes had identified the pineal gland, located almost at the center of the brain, as the seat of the soul; Le Brun therefore attached great importance to the line of the eyes and eyebrows, and drew different conclusions depending on whether it was directed upward toward the soul, or downward toward the nose and mouth, considered to represent the more animal aspects of human nature. Le Brun inferred human personality and faculties and animal character from a geometric analysis of the structure of the head. The animals are drawn naturalistically, but with a search for expression that gives them "a marked element of human intelligence." The human features are "enlarged and distorted", the noses and mouths look "exactly like muzzles. [But…] everything is serious, everything is calculated and diligently reasoned." (J. Baltrušaitis, Aberrations. Essai sur la légende des formes, Paris, 1983, p. 26).

Ongoing research

Le Brun's work continued a long tradition of research on physiognomy beginning in Antiquity. He drew on various sources, including a famous treatise by Giovanni Battista della Porta (1535-1615) entitled De Humana Physiognomia (Naples, 1586, translated into French in 1655-1656), and the writings of naturalists such as Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605); these seminal works were to have a profound influence on 18th-century theologian J.-C. Lavater. The publication of Le Brun's physiognomic drawings in 1806 made them accessible to the general public; they sparked particular interest, as facial and racial characteristics, the connections between humans and animals, and psychiatry were popular objects of study at that time.


- BEAUVAIS L., PINAULT-SØRENSEN M., Musée du Louvre, département des Arts graphiques, Inventaire général des dessins. Ecole française. Charles Le Brun 1619-1620, t. II, Paris, RMN, 2000, p. 571 s.

- BEAUVAIS L., MEJANES J.-F. , dans Le Brun à Versailles, Paris, musée du Louvre, 1985-1986, n° 91-92

- PINAULT M., dans Dessin et sciences XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle, Paris, musée du Louvre, 1984, n° 71-74

- Charles Le Brun, musée de Versailles, 1963, n° 133-135

Technical description

  • Charles LE BRUN

    Relationship of the human figure with that of the lion

    Circa 1671

  • Black chalk, pen and black ink, brush and gray wash, white gouache on stained and yellowed white paper. Squared with black chalk.

    H. 21.7 cm; W. 32.7 cm

  • Le Brun's studio. Entered the royal collections in 1690.

    INV 28156

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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