Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Case of Missing Identity: Researching a Phrenological Bust: A Guest Report by Museum Studies Student Liza Young, St. John's University

Liza Young--a museum studies student at St. John's University--took interest in an enigmatic recent acquisition to The Morbid Anatomy Library: the 19th century plaster phrenological death mask bust seen above. Working with our Head Librarian Laetitia Barbier, she unearthed a fascinating history and possible provenance. Below are her findings thus far; stay tuned for more installments! You can also find out more about Liza and her work by clicking here.

This spring the Morbid Anatomy Museum welcomed a fantastic new addition to its collection of unusually beautiful things: a plaster bust created for the study of phrenology. The bust portrays a man whose age lies somewhere between young and ageless. The white of the plaster has tarnished over the years, yet a faint phrenological map is still visible, sketched across his crown and eyes. At the base of the bust, where a label identifying to whom he belonged or in which museum he was housed, only a single word remains immediately visible: tragique.

Such slight hints to the story behind this bust present the opportunity for an ideal research project for an archivist-in-training such as myself. Somehow, I have been chosen as the lucky one to assist in undertaking this mission for information, to discover where the bust originated, who created him, and who had posed as the model. But where does one begin when dealing with a head created for a dead science whose only identifying mark (the label) has worn away? I’m not sure, but I began with self-guided history lesson.

Part One: A Little History
Phrenology, originally known as “cranioscopy,” is a pseudoscience created by the German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) in 1796. The discipline spread throughout Europe, finding particular popularity amongst the British, between 1810 to 1840. To briefly sum up the essence of a fascinating practice, each lump of the skull was believed to correspond to a particular moral or immoral temperament localized within a specific area of the brain, which would swell or dip in relation to the volume of the temperament’s presence. Phrenology was believed to allow the true nature of one’s character be read through the skull, which would enable mankind to identify both the gifted and, most importantly, the deviant members of society without any previous knowledge of the individual’s history. The early nineteenth century marked the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which brought with it the birth of city life and, consequently, the crime-infested city streets that would one day inspire the likes of Jack the Ripper. Phrenology was a science that many looked to as a tool that might curtail these escalating crimes by tagging the deviants before they deviated.

Left image is an edible print available for sale in the Morbid Anatomy Museum gift shop. Click the image to view/purchase/eat!

Illustrated phrenological maps of skulls were used to study the lay of land, or the head, so to speak, along with three-dimensional busts like the one in question. Some busts were created without a model, while others were taken from plaster casts of human faces. The Morbid Anatomy’s bust depicts a face nearly perfect in form, though lacking the too-smooth features of a generic piece for study. The shape of the nose, definition around the mouth, and, most importantly, the shallow undulations of his skull mark the piece as a cast from a unique human head. Who might have supplied his head for such a study? While some men did sit for personalized casts, the majority of the busts were made from less voluntary gentlemen.

In order to hone the new science, phrenologists studied the skulls of exceptional characters on the opposing ends of the spectrum: the most brilliant of men and the most errant. However, the only abundant cache of skulls available was provided by the local executioner. Yes, following death by guillotine or some such unfortunate fate, scientists would make a cast of the head, now relieved of its body, and study the plaster copy for the lumps of the brain that would, they believed, mark the subject as the criminal he was now known to be. While it cannot be stated indisputably that the bust in question was cast from a criminal (the length of his neck suggests he was not guillotined, unlike these men), it is safe to say that he was indeed dead. This conclusion is evidenced by the opening of his eyes, which would have been unbearable for a living model. Understanding the ultimate end of the model is very likely as close to identifying him as I will able to come, so let’s put a pin in that and move forward to where this man lived out his life before it was cut short.

Remnants of text on the phrenological bust. 

Part Two: Heritage of the Headless
As mentioned, the only fully legible of the three words along the base of the bust spells the French word tragique. This suggests, of course, that the bust is of French, or possibly Swiss, origin. It is possible that the first word reads Sestinia, though it is difficult to say, particularly as the only information I could find in relation to the word is that it is an Italian surname and an obscure plant of no particular use or potency. However, a few other clues point strongly toward French heritage.

Upon further examination of the head, I noticed a phrenological zone behind the left ear had been labeled with amativité. It is the French translation of “amativeness,” meaning the inclination toward sexual arousal. If an individual presented an overdeveloped amative temperament, phrenologists believed his character would be plagued by obscene and licentious behavior.
Details of phrenological bust.

If underdeveloped, he might suffer from a cold, detached personality. A second, nearly entirely erased label appears above the left eye. Though it is completely illegible, it seems to mark the zone associated with “tune,” which relates to a love of music. It is tempting to read into the meaning behind these isolated labels. Do they allude to the crime for which the model was executed? Or are they coincidental remains? Having studied the character of music throughout art and history, I am well aware of the perceived intoxicating effects attributed to listening to music for pleasure, rather than for devotion to God, which, according many an old master (Bosch, Vermeer, etc.), will inevitably lead to licentious behavior. However, phrenology was considered a science, not a form of artistic expression, so I must put a rest to any further symbolic interpretation.

The facts state that tragique and amativité are French. If I were pressed to volunteer a possible answer as to what the label reads in full, I would suggest “Sestinia, La Discipline Tragique," though I would say it very hesitantly. The case for French heritage is further enforced through the bust’s acquisition history. Joanna Ebenstein, the mother of the Morbid Anatomy Museum, purchased the bust from the Upper West Side shop Maxilla and Mandible (sadly, now closed), who purchased it from “the Auzoux workshop” during the 1990’s in Normandy, France. So who then is Auzoux?

Part Three: The Creator
Louis Thomas Jerôme Auzoux (1797-1880) was a French physician frustrated by the body’s inability to be preserved long enough for thorough anatomical study. Cadavers decomposed too rapidly. Anatomical drawings and texts proved too dry. Wax models melted under prolonged touch. In response to these issues, Auzoux turned to the popular art of papier-mâché, typically used to created dolls for children, and built life-size anatomical models of the human body. The organs of these faux cadavers could be removed and handled, mimicking the process of dissection. However, while Auzoux was certainly interested in the functions and design of the cranium, he was devoted to the science of anatomy, not phrenology. He, as far my research can tell, never created casts like the one in question. What, then, was the bust doing at Auzoux’s workshop? After a brief interview with the gentleman who sold the bust to Joanna, I learned that the piece was likely not manufactured by Auzoux, but possibly used as a reference piece in the factory’s collection. Perhaps it was sold during a weeding of their collection.

Just upon reaching this dead end, I received word that Laetitia Barbier, the Head Librarian of the Morbid Anatomy Library, had a lead. It seemed the creator may have been another Frenchman known as Dumoutier. And so began another plunge into JSTOR.

Dumoutier’s “Cephalometre,” a machine the phrenologist created to study the exact contours of the skull via Dumont d’Urville’s Phrenologist: Dumoutier and the Aesthetics of Races

Pierre Marie Dumoutier (1797-1871) was a famed phrenologist and adventurer. He accompanied the naval officer and explorer J. S. C. Dumont d’Uvrille on his expedition to the South Seas in 1837. The mission of the expedition was to further the study of phrenology (as well as ethnography) through analyzing the skulls of natives living in Patagonia, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. Dumoutier was to be the “natural historian” of the voyage, which entailed casting the heads of many living me, as well as collecting the skulls of the dead. Upon one such attempt to acquire a particular skull from “a most ferocious tribe of Malays,” Dumoutier was refused. Instead, the native offered to quickly decapitate the head of an enemy and present that to the phrenologist. As generous as the offer was, Dumoutier declined. Upon his return to Toulon, in the south of France, Dumoutier had created more than fifty plaster busts, many painted to match the color of the individual’s skin tone, as well an equal number of skulls. While these artifacts of phrenological research were, at the time, property of the government, many are now in the care of the Flaubert Museum and the History of Medicine in Rouen.

Morbid Anatomy’s bust on the left, the Flaubert Museum’s on the right

Upon researching Dumoutier’s work, I found his style to be very similar to that of the one in the hands of the Morbid Anatomy Museum. The simplistic bases and the length of the neck are identical. Though not exact replicas, the materials, the labeling of only the left portion of the skull, the style of script, and the color of the plaster all appear very alike in comparison. The main differences between the two are the closed eye lids of the finished piece in Rouen, its paper label, and the script to the side of its base. It is possible that these details were performed during the finals phases of the cast’s completion – phases at which the Morbid Anatomy’s piece never quite arrived. While there remains many details to be scrutinized, questioned, and scrutinized again, it seems we are heading in the right direction – or at the very least a logical direction founded on evidence-based research. We now have a sketch of the history surrounding the bust, including who created it, the type of character the model may have been, as well as where both gentlemen likely lived.

This project will continue until more solid conclusions are unearthed. I have contacted the Flaubert Museum (using my pitiful French) regarding my and the Morbid Anatomy Museum’s research. I will report the diagnosis when the results are in. I also intend to explore the possibility of another French phrenologist’s involvement with the piece: François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772-1838), whose style is quite similar to that of Dumoutier. Until then, should there happen to be a phrenology scholar out there reading this, any suggestions are certainly welcome.

Combe, George. The Phrenological Journal and Magazine of Magazine of Moral Science, for the Year 1843, Vol. XVI. Edinburgh: Maclachlan, Stewart & Co., 1843.

Mclaren, Angus. “A Prehistory of the Social Sciences: Phrenology in France.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 01 (1981): 3.

Pierpont, et al., Rev. John. Annals of Phrenology, Vol. 2. Boston: Marsh, Capen and Lyon, 1835.

Rochette, Marc. “Dumont d’Urville’s Phrenologist: Dumoutier and the Aesthetics of Races * Translated from French by Isabel Ollivier.” The Journal of Pacific History 38, no. 2 (2003): 251-268.

"The Death Mask of Napoleon." Musées en Haute-Normandie. (accessed June 29, 2014).

"The Phrenological Organs." Phrenology. (accessed June 29, 2014).

And of course Joanna Ebenstein and Laetitia Barbier

1 comment:

mommywarrior said...

I do know that James Randi in FLorida (the skeptic) was given a huge collection of Phrenology books for the JREF library which is on the top floor of his home. they were part of a large sale, and his friend (one of the greatest collectors of books in the world) gave them to him as he didn't want them. ALso if you do get to Paris, the number of graves that mention phrenology, and phrenologists buried in Pere Lechase cemeterie is amazing. If you ever get to FLorida you might ask if you could peep at his books.