Duchenne de Boulogne

Thursday, October 7th, 2010 - Nicholas Calcott

This is not new work, clearly, so I’m always a bit shocked (pun!) when I bring this stuff up and no one knows about it. But this happens consistently enough for me to be posting about it here:

Anyways, Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne was a French doctor and photographer of the 19th century. He comes up here, of course, due to his photographic work, though it was a direct result of his actually quite important scientific research.

Duchenne was a solitary ‘mariner-like’ figure in the Paris of his time, concerned exclusively with medical research and the treatment of people of all social classes (somewhat to the detriment of his career). He developed many pioneering techniques in neurology and medecine in general, but one of his most lasting contributions was his work on muscular contraction and facial expressions. This became widely known to the international scientific community through Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, and was originally published with a suite of scientific images (some of the first uses of photography for this purpose) of Duchenne or his assistants applying localized electrical charges to the face of an old man (who, luckily, had zero sensation in his face) in order to induce different expressions.

Duchenne was heavily influenced by physiognomy: He believed that these facial expressions were a window to the soul. In a weird way (one he probably wouldn’t have recognized) he was right: The images he produced have this weird grotesquely unselfconscious power to them. And though their goal was scientific illustration, some of them stray quite far from anything we would recognize as such.

Google images is a good place to start if you’d like to see more of his work… Though the National Media Museum has a pretty good set of them too.