From Velázquez to WhatsApp: how a drawing can show what we feel

Emojis help the reader of the message understand the feeling with which it was written (Photo: File)

In the 21st century, there are many of us who use emojis to emphasize our state of mind, the circumstances that surround us or the reactions we feel to the news that reaches us through social networks.

But we must know that, although its use is relatively recent, resorting to schematic forms to reflect facial expression has long been a basic tool in artists’ workshops. Painters and sculptors have always delved into the interior of the human being, looking in faces for clues that help us decipher the feelings, emotions, passions of the soul and even the character of each one, with their defects and virtues.

Make the invisible visible

Since ancient times, representing feelings or their concealment on the faces of characters has been a constant goal for artists. In history paintings, it was essential to characterize the victorious side with victorious, noble and magnanimous countenances, denoting virtues such as strength, temperance or a sense of justice. While the defeated had to appear humiliated, unworthy and ashamed, clearly showing gestures that express anger, cowardice or rage.

Mythological paintings would also lend themselves to being vehicles for expressing emotions. In Vulcan’s Forge, Velazquez He would take the opportunity to offer a complete catalog of emotions on the faces of the blacksmiths who accompanied the god when Apollo visited him to communicate the infidelity of his wife, Venus, with Mars. From the surprise and malevolent glee of some workers to the nascent anger of Vulcan himself, his eyes glittering and his mouth tightening as he gripped the hammer firmly, the gestures contrast starkly with the blank stare of Apollo himself.

"Vulcan's Forge"of Velazquez.  Prado Museum
“The Forge of Vulcan” by Velázquez. Prado Museum

Something similar happened in religious works. In them, the faces of the gallery of saints, the blessed souls or the characters of Sacred History always showed recollection, devotion, kindness, happiness or mercy. This was opposed to the appearance of the executioners who beat Christ, the fallen angels or simply the souls of the damned that reflected treachery, evil, cruelty or fear.

On the contrary, the absence of emotion has been a constant for centuries in the genre of royal portraiture. Until well into the 19th century and, above all, until the invention of photography, portraiture was practically reserved for monarchs, nobles and famous people.

Precisely this circumstance is what marked that, although painters of the stature of Titian, Rubens, Velazquez either Goya The physical features were represented with great credibility, the protagonists always appeared with the same gesture, one that did not denote any emotion, but that reflected dignity and timelessness, with an almost divine, distant and iron air.

pathognomy and physiognomy

Facial expression, physiognomy, pathognomy, gesture and pose formed a basic subject for painters and sculptors that, although heterogeneous, was studied as a block. An artist who did not know how to convincingly express the passions of the soul would not be able to move the viewer, an absolutely fundamental condition for achieving excellence in painting. But how did they learn to paint them? Who taught them? What models did they follow?

book page "Of human physiognomy".  Singularis / Madroño Consortium (The Conversation)
Page from the book “De humano physiognomonia”. Singularis / Madroño Consortium (The Conversation)

Beginning with the Renaissance, texts such as De Humana Physiognomonia of Gianbattista della Porta. He exposed the theories of physiognomy (the discipline that studies the relationship between physical traits and the immutable character of each human being, such as the miser, the merciful or the suspicious) and pathognomy (which studies transient feelings, such as the case of jealousy, anger or admiration).

Since Pythagoras Y Pseudo Aristotle made them fashionable, these subjects established the analogy between the resemblance to animals and the character of human beings. Thus, someone who had the features of the ass could be considered ignorant, those who resemble pigs would be considered dirty, those who were similar to the ox, meek, the eagle, intelligent, and the monkey, lustful.

Thanks to these descriptions, and above all to his illustrations, treatises signed by the most prestigious authors began to circulate through workshops and academies throughout Europe. They could also be found in the libraries of great painters, as is the case with Velazquez in Spain.

The seventeenth century was a notable boost for the spread of these theories. On the one hand, the appearance of drawing books as a fundamental work tool in workshops and academies facilitated the models that insisted on the study of the face and its emotions.

would be above all Charles LeBrun who would make the greatest contribution to this topic. Director of the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture and first painter to King Louis XIV, Le Brun gave several lectures that he illustrated with diagrams that, in schematic form, offered rules for representing emotions.

Drawing of 'The expressions' according to Charles le Brun included in his "treatise on the passions".  Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of ‘The expressions’ according to Charles le Brun included in his “Treatise of the passions”. Wikimedia Commons

In this way, it greatly facilitated the work of artists. Since then they have had a method to be able to configure different faces of men, women, children and the elderly who, with very basic strokes, expressed their character, feelings or passions.

The emoticon or emoji

The simplicity and effectiveness of the schematization of emotions lies in the fact that the eyes and mouth are the parts of the face that most clearly express the disturbances suffered by the soul. It is not possible to smile, cry, moan or scream without moving the muscles that control both organs. In turn, it is very easy to recognize an altered spirit through something as simple as the direction of the corner of the mouth or the angle of the eyes.

The first emoticons were created in 1982 by Scott Fahman and for this he used the symbols 🙂 and :-(. But it was not until the 2010s that they became popular thanks to instant messaging via mobile telephony.

Since then, punctuation marks have been replaced by animated smiley faces that offer a whole gallery of emotions, from joy to frustration, from laughter to tears, from anger to boredom.

As we can see, over time technology and science have modified our daily lives. What has not changed is our need to communicate emotions to our fellow human beings. For this we continue synthesizing, with two points and a line, what we feel in our hearts.

*María del Mar Albero Muñoz is Professor of Art History, University of Murcia.

Originally posted on The Conversation.

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