French Beauty in the 19th Century

Many people, and anthropologists especially, are curious whether the features of beauty are universal across cultures or are culturally specific to certain nations. They pay attention to faces and bodies. They look at the form, complexion, expressiveness, and physiognomy of faces. They also pay attention to the form, complexion, and expressivity of the bodies.

Many people, like Italians, tend to believe that, compared to other cultures, people of their own country are more beautiful than those in other nations. The mere exposure effect and prototypic effects may play their roles. Standards of beauty can be disputable and subjective. Other people may think differently.

Foreign visitors often have different perspectives on how prevalent beauty is in various nations. Anyway, any of these views are subjective, and some people can argue in different ways.

Therefore, only the frequency of certain opinions can provide an objective perspective. And the historical perspective of cultural evolution can be of interest as well.

How Beautiful Were French People in the 19th Century?

Let us look into the historical legacy of love scholarship (Finck, 1887/2019). Here is how Henry Finck and other authors he cited portrayed French beauty in the 19th century.

Henry Finck noted in his writings of the 19th century that for many authors, personal beauty in France is seemingly more rare than anywhere else in Europe. He wrote that people in France had less pronounced forms, complexions, and physiognomy compared to Italians.

What Did Foreign Authors Think about Personal Beauty of French People?

British novelist William Thackeray (1811–1863), for example, wrote that nature has

“rather stinted the bodies and limbs of the French nation.”

British anthropologist Alexander Walker (1779–1852), in his book “Beauty” (1845), commented that

“the women of France are among the ugliest in the world.”

And Sir Lepel Griffin (1838–1908), a British author, mentioned that

“National vanity, where inordinately developed, may take the form of asserting that black is white, as in France, where the average of good looks, among both men and women, is perhaps lower than elsewhere in Europe. If a pretty woman be seen in the streets of Paris, she is almost certainly English or American; yet if a foreigner were to form an estimate of French beauty from the rapturous descriptions of contemporary French novels, or from the sketches of La Vie Parisienne, he must conclude that the Frenchwoman was the purest and loveliest type in the world in face and figure. The fiction in this case disguises itself in no semblance of the truth.”

(as cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 507).

What Did French Authors Think of Personal Beauty in France? 

Still, some French writers also thought that people in their nation had shortcomings in personal beauty.

Louis Figuier, a 19th-century French scientist and author, characterized French men’s love as “the love of the graceful rather than the beautiful.”

Characterizing French country women, Louis Figuier also emphasized their grace and expressiveness rather than their beauty:

“There is in her face much that is most pleasing, although we can assign her physiognomy to no determinate type. Her features, frequently irregular, seem to be borrowed from different races; they do not possess that unity which springs from calm and majesty, but are in the highest degree expressive, and marvellously contrived for conveying every shade of feeling. In them we see a smile though it be shaded by tears; a caress though they threaten us; and an appeal when yet they command. Amid the irregularity of this physiognomy the soul displays its workings. As a rule the Frenchwoman is short of stature, but in every proportion of her form combines grace and delicacy. Her extremities and joints are fine and elegant, of perfect model and distinct form, without a suspicion of coarseness. With her, moreover, art is brought wonderfully to assist nature”.

(L. Figuier “The Races of Man,” as cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 507).