Painted plaster head representing French criminal Norbert after execution, France, 1831-1900
During the 1800s, plaster heads of executed criminals were used for an emerging field of study called phrenology. Phrenologists believed the shape and size of areas of the brain (and therefore the overlying skull) determined personality. This meant criminals such as Norbert made interesting subjects. Heads like this were part of larger phrenological reference sets which included famous people and ethnographic examples. This example belonged to Dr. Paul-Ferdinand Gachet (1777-1850). He is best known for treating painter Vincent van Gogh in the last weeks of his life. Gachet was the subject of one of van Gogh’s most famous paintings.
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The study of the bumps on the outside of the skull in order to determine a person's character. It was based on the mistaken theory that the skull becomes modified according to the size of different parts of the brain.
Glossary: phrenological head
A representation of a human head, on which the phrenological faculties are illustrated. Phrenologists believed that one could tell personality traits by examining the bumps of the skull. The practice is now regarded as a pseudo-science.
Glossary: death mask
A cast taken of a person's face after death, usually made from plaster or wax.