Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722-1789) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999
(Studies in the History of Ideas in the Low Countries Volume 4) ISBN: 90-420-0434-7
US $40.00

by Miriam Claude Meijer, Ph.D.
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Kevin Berland, “Outward Sign and Inward Condition: Recent Studies in Physiognomy, Anthropometry, and Related Sciences,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36 (2003): 266-269.


Petrus Camper’s physiognomical theories are surrounded by controversy, which Miriam Meijer endeavors to disentangle and dissipate. Camper had an amazingly flexible and inventive mind, producing substantial contributions in human anatomy, surgery, obstetrics, veterinary medicine, civil engineering, politics, and education. He is best known for his work in the field of what is now called physical anthropology, and especially for his “facial angle.” This consists of a straight line drawn from forehead to the front teeth, variations of which Camper charted in a set of comparative figures that establish the ideal standard in Greek statuary (facial angles averaging between 85-100°). Camper’s line draws unfair criticism, Meijer contends, because his successors, Gall and assorted phrenologists, appropriated it for their own racist schemes. Much has been made of Camper's famous illustration, placing the profile of the Belvedere Apollo next to heads of a European (80°), a Kalmuck (70°) an Angolan (70°), and an orangutan (58°), which some have construed as indicating a hierarchy moving downward along a continuum from the Greek ideal to the simian extreme, thus charting the inferiority of races whose facial angle approximated that of the apes.

But this is emphatically not what Camper was doing, Meijer thoroughly demolishes the myth of Camper’s willing contribution to racist anthropology by demonstrating his real position. Camper’s cranial measurements and his observations on racial characteristics such as skin color were consistently presented as natural variations — diversity, not gradation — within a wide, egalitarian definition of humanity. In his important work on skin color, Camper extended Buffon’s theories of climatic influence, arguments that again support the idea of natural variation within a monogenic kindred humanity, and demonstrated the impossibility of proving the common assuption that Adam and Eve were white. Meijer insists that Camper never referred to the existence of a racial hierarchy. Later theorists, who located the intellectual organs at the front of the cranial cavity, emphasized the shape of the forehead and thus the facial angle was appropriated as a “scientific” indicator in racist anthropology. Camper’s measurements were designed to disconnect Europeans’ aesthetic preferences for their own facial structure from theories of racial superiority. He did this on two fronts, both through anthropological investigations and through a critique of aesthetics. His position was that “the feeling for beauty was innate and beautiful, but the standard of beauty itself was quite relative” (160), and so denied the normativity of the European concept of beauty.

Meijer’s study is detailed and sophisticated, bringing to light important but neglected texts and elucidating the context for Camper’s work in many areas of intellectual endeavor. Discussions on the place of the anthropoid ape in racial theorizing, the chain of being, early modern explanations of skin color, and her translation of Camper’s lecture “On the Origin and Color of Blacks” all provide significant contributions to the history of anthropology and the concept of race. Such an important and scholarly book should have had the benefit of good editing, but it must be noted that the text and the notes are riddled with problems, awkward and incomplete sentences and phrases that seem to be the product of an unfinished translation into English, a few stubbornly resisting comprehension. Nonetheless, this rich book is well worth the effort of persisting.

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