The art of constructing scientific stereotypes

June 25, 1999

Artists helped create the notion of a human hierarchy based on facial characteristics, argues David Bindman

Race emerged as a scientific concept in the late 18th century, and continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to build an academic authority and respectability that was rarely challenged.

For most historians, the idea of using race to categorise people now appears a characteristic product of the Enlightenment, deriving from the development of the human sciences and the desire to classify plants, animals and human beings inaugurated by Linnaeus and Buffon.

In the 19th century, racial categories became based on more scientific, mathematical calculations, such as measuring skull sizes, which carried on into the Nazi period inGermany.

But it was visual culture that provided the original stereotypes.

A key moment in giving the concept scientific credibility was the discovery of a method of measuring skull formation, so that it became possible to create a racial "hierarchy" based on the angle of the facial profile, with the Greek ideal at one end and the ape at the other.

The inventor of this method was the Dutchman Pieter Camper, who trained originally as a painter, and the work in which the discovery was announced, first published in 1786, was not a treatise on racial difference but a book on how to draw different types of humanity accurately.

In fact, Camper's work was primarily part of aesthetic rather than scientific debates. But aesthetics have been bound up with ideas of race from the beginning.

The Greek ideal brought to the fore by the art historian Johann Winckelmann in 1764 was later used by others as a standard of European beauty, while non-Europeans were placed outside as "undeveloped" or "ugly". Such assumptions could draw on an artistic tradition that used caricatured physical types of non-Europeans and presented them as typical. It had therefore been long assumed that Africans and others had generic physical features as well as differences in skin colour.

The effect of the scientific focus on race in the late 18th century, then, was not to challenge but to reinforce these long-standing artistic stereotypes.

Scientists assumed that each race had its own ideal form whatever the individual variations in actual appearance, and that these ideals could be plotted against each other in a kind of hierarchy.

David Bindman is professor of the history of art at University College London.

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