Johann Kaspar Lavater  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Johann Kaspar Lavater (November 15, 1741 - January 2, 1801) was a Swiss poet and physiognomist, best-known for his Essays on Physiognomy (1775 - 1778).


He was born at Zürich, and educated at the Gymnasium there, where J. J. Bodmer and J. J. Breitinger were among his teachers. When barely twenty-one, he greatly distinguished himself by denouncing, in conjunction with his friend, the painter Henry Fuseli, an iniquitous magistrate, who was compelled to make restitution of his ill-gotten gains.

In 1769 Lavater took Holy Orders, and officiated till his death as deacon or pastor in churches in his native city. His oratorical fervour and genuine depth of conviction gave him great personal influence; he was extensively consulted as a casuist, and was welcomed with enthusiasm on his journeys through Germany. His mystical writings were also widely popular.

In the same year of 1769 Lavater tried to convert Moses Mendelssohn to Christianity, by sending him a translation of Charles Bonnet's Palingenesie philosophique, and demanding that he either publicly refute Bonnet's arguments or convert. Mendelssohn refused to do either. In this affair many prominent intellectuals took Mendelssohn's side - among them Lichtenberg and Herder.

Lavater's name would now be forgotten but for his work on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775-1778). The fame of this book, which found admirers in France and England as well as in Germany, rests upon the handsome style of publication and the accompanying illustrations. The two principal sources from which Lavater developed his study of physiognomy were from the writings of the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta and the observations made by Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici (translated into German in 1748 and praised by Lavater).

As a poet, Lavater published Christliche Lieder (1776-1780) and two epics, Jesus Messias (1780) and Joseph von Arimathia (1794), in the style of Klopstock. More important and characteristic of the religious temperament of Lavater's age are his introspective Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (4 vols. 1768-1778); Geheimes Tagebuch von einem Beobachter seine selbst (2 vols., 1772-1773) and Pontius Pilatus, oder der Mensch in allen Gestalten (4 vols., 1782-1785).

From 1774 on, Goethe was intimately acquainted with Lavater, but later he fell out with him, accusing him of superstition and hypocrisy. Lavater had a mystic's indifference to historical Christianity, and, although regarded as a champion of orthodoxy, was in fact only an antagonist of rationalism.

Victor Hugo referring to Lavater as a physiognomist in his Les Misérables in section "Marius" book "The Noxious poor" chapter VI "The Wild Man in his lair" about what he would have said about Thénardier's face.

During the later years of his life his influence waned, and he incurred ridicule by his vanity. His patriotic conduct during the French occupation of Switzerland brought about his tragic death. On the taking of Zürich by the French in 1799, Lavater, while endeavouring to appease the aggressors, was shot by an infuriated grenadier; he died over a year later, after long sufferings borne with great fortitude.

The Swiss artist and illustrator, Warja Honegger-Lavater, is a direct descendent of Johann Kaspar Lavater.


  • Vermischte Schriften (2 vols., 1774-1781)
  • Kleinere prosaische Schriften (3 vols., 1784-1785)
  • Nachgelassene Schriften (5 vols., 1801-1802)
  • Sämtliche Werke (poems only; 6 vols., 1836-1838)
  • Ausgewählte Schriften (8 vols., 1841-1844).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Johann Kaspar Lavater" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools