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We are standing in front of a large book of prints. It includes black-and-white illustrations of the facial expressions drawn by the French painter Charles Le Brun.
The illustrations capture different “passions” of the soul.
They were first created by Le Brun in 1668. He believed that the human soul showed its “passions” in the movements of the face, and he created a visual classification system to support his idea.
This went on to be influential for many centuries.
On this open page, there is an image of a woman with a serene expression on her face. The title below describes it as a depiction of “Joy with Tranquillity”.
Underneath the image, a short caption reads: “Very little alteration is remarked in the face of those that feel within themselves the sweetness of joy.”
This suggests that the lack of any stronger expression was regarded positively. Le Brun’s work went on to declare that it was possible to judge the moral character of a person based on the way they expressed their passions.
Le Brun was, like many other 17th-century thinkers of the time, interested in rationalising, ordering and explaining the world around him. By giving names and definitions to subjective human experiences, they set in motion the deeply rooted concept of human expression as universal, and position these expressions within a hierarchy of good and bad, a system which we are still grappling with to this day.
About the speaker
Laurie Britton Newell
Laurie Britton Newell is a senior curator at Wellcome Collection and co-curator of the ‘Joy’ and ‘Tranquillity’ exhibitions, part of the season ‘On Happiness’ (2021), and she curated the exhibition ‘Somewhere in Between’ (2018). She previously ran a rural curatorial platform in the USA and taught at the University of Colorado. Prior to that she worked as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she curated critically acclaimed exhibitions such as ‘Memory Palace’ (2013), ‘Make Lab’ (2011), ‘1:1: Architects Build Small Spaces’ (2010) and ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’ (2008). She writes about contemporary creative practice for books, magazines and newspapers.