May 15, 2013
Douchenne-de-Boulogne stimulating the face of "the old man".

Douchenne-de-Boulogne stimulating the face of "the old man".

Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne was born 200 years ago in Boulogne-sur-Mer (Pas-de-Calais, France). He studied medicine in Paris and became a physician in 1831. He practiced general medicine in his native town for about 11 years and then returned to Paris to initiate pioneering studies on electrical stimulation of muscles. Duchenne used electricity not only as a therapeutic agent, as it was commonly the case earlier in the 19th century, but chiefly as a physiological investigation tool to study the anatomy of the living body. Without formal appointment he visited hospital wards across Paris searching for rare cases of neuromuscular disorders. He built a portable electrical device that he used to functionally map all bodily muscles and to study their coordinating action in health and disease. He gave accurate descriptions of many neuromuscular disorders, including pseudohypertrophic muscular dystrophy to which his name is still attached (Duchenne muscular dystrophy). He also invented a needle system (Duchenne’s histological harpoon) for percutaneous sampling of muscular tissue without anesthesia, a forerunner of today’s biopsy. Duchenne summarized his work in two major treatises entitled De l’électrisation localisée (1855) and Physiologie des mouvements (1867). Duchenne’s iconographic work stands at the crossroads of three major discoveries of the 19th century: electricity, physiology and photography. This is best exemplified by his investigation of the mechanisms of human physiognomy in which he used localized faradic stimulation to reproduce various forms of human facial expression. The album that complements his book on this issue is considered a true incunabulum of photography. Duchenne de Boulogne, a shy but hard-working, acute and ingenious observer, became one of most original clinicians of the 19th century. He died in Paris in 1875.

Photography is well known for being a relatively new medium in the art world.It has been argued for and against it being a fine art and the argument still continues. In the past, photography was used for both scientific documentation and as an art form, but many agreed that it can be used as a tool for convincing the viewer of a given reality because of its literality.Duchenne De Boulogne is well known for using Photography as a form of providing documentation for his experiments/hypothesis about the workings of the human body and its link to emotion. Although his experiments were a bit harsh for some viewers, his photographs were able to capture his ideas of expression and human emotion and portrayed his aesthetics behind his photographs.

Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne was a neurologist born in September 1806 in Boulogne, France where he grew up during the times of Napoleon I when his father was a captain in the French Navy.[1]He attended a religious school during his early educational years, where he learned classical languages and concentrated on natural sciences which lead to his entering of the Medical School of Paris in 1825. [2] After graduating, he moved back to Boulogne where he began to practice medicine and became interested in faradic currents which were used to treat diseases by puncturing the skin with platinum needle and inserting these currents into body tissue to stimulate the muscles.[3]His interests in these tactics lead to his discovery that applying electrodes to the skin was enough to stimulate muscles without having to puncture the skin and continued to experiment with electrical stimulation. [4]With this discovery, he wanted to push the idea that there is a connection between expression and muscle activation and how the expressions of the human face can be discovered by studying muscle contraction. [5]

With photography, Duchenne’s goals were to illustrate the expressive lines of the face during the electrical contraction of the muscles and to study the sensitiveness of the face and its involuntary movements.He was fascinated with the idea that facial expression can be portrayed as being a universal language that reveals genuine emotion and that what appears to change facial expressions from one person to the other is the exaggeration of certain traits.[6]He thought of these ideas as laws of expressive movement that were triggered by the muscles of the face but were portrayed differently due to the differences in facial traits. Through these “laws”, he wanted to assist artists at the time with anatomical knowledge of muscular workings of the face. He was also studying the way these muscular workings differ from the movements of limbs or trunk and concluded that unlike limbs, genuine facial expression could only be controlled by the soul, where limbs could simply be controlled by will.[7] He used photography to reflect the truthfulness that lies in the face of his models, which show in detail how facial lines are created through muscle stimulation.Photography was also considered an increasing sophisticated process atthe time and people accepted it as a legitimate documentation method, which allowed Duchenne to use photography as a way of recording his experiments.Duchenne was intrigued by photography’s scientific makeup and the idea that it would serve as a way to prove both his scientific theories and his aesthetic philosophy. [8]

Through his photographs, Duchenne created images that demand a reaction from his viewer.By using mentally disabled patients, he took advantage of the vulnerability of his models that ranged in sex, age and different societal states to help him portray his aesthetic visions as well as his idea that each exact facial expression differs from person to person depending on the exaggeration of their facial features.[9]He was also interested in the character that he depicted through his false facial expressions and not so much in the actual person behind the character, allowing him to ignore any feelings his models may have and to rely on his artistic ideas.Beauty was also an aesthetic idea he used when photographing his subjects.He focused on portraying images that showed spiritual beauty by using the proper rendering of an emotion, not by portraying physical beauty.[10]In his studies, he includes more than 90 plates/photographs with various repeated models which he used to compare the different facial expressions he could portray within that set of studies.[11]His images were also referencing Charles Darwin and Roman/ Greek mythology and their views on physical beauty.In one of his studies (Plates 74-78), Duchenne uses a blind model whom in his opinion is “neither pretty nor ugly, but had regular features and a non expressive face” and shows us how he was able to transform her by dressing and posing her as he chose and making her gain beauty.[12]With these studies, he also attempted to improve her condition and tried to improve her vision, but didn’t prove to be successful. When looking at these studies, the viewer is to compare either side of the faces by covering the opposite and seeing the different expressions he is able to portray, one being artificially produced and the other naturally produced by an emotion.

Duchenne’s studies have helped with the advancement of facial surgery and have helped repair facial expression from the 19th Century and through the 1990’s.His stressing of muscle movement in the expression of emotions has helped with surgeries for muscle spasms and have also aided with surgery for the aging process.[13]In the art realm, his photographs and experiments are considered to be part of the realist movement which happens in the nineteenth century and continues into the twentieth century when performance art was advancing.[14]His photographs were not only used as documentation of his experiments, but were also used as a form of expression of his philosophical ideas about beauty and spirituality.

Looking at Duchenne’s work allowed me to consider portrait photography’s deceiving ways.It can essentially trick the viewer into believing that the person they are looking at are who they appear to be, when in reality they are a fabrication of the photographer or a fabrication of what they want the viewer to see them as.His decision to use photography suits his ideas of unperfected beauty and his portrayal of these models as they are, without having to fit a physically pleasing role.Duchenne’s photographs also give me perspective as far as understanding what his aesthetics were regarding the human face and human emotion.His idea that by looking at facial expression, one can conclude that authentic human emotion cannot be easily forged intrigues me. Although he utilized mental patients as models to experiment with his somewhat cruel hypothesis, his ideas about creating believable characters who possess convincing emotions reminds me of theater and how actors can switch from one character to another and still convince the viewer of a false persona.



Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne was the son of a fisherman, descended from a long line of mariners who had settled in theBoulogne-sur-Mer region of France. In opposition to his father’s wishes that he become a sailor, and driven by an innate love for science, Duchenne enrolled at the University of Douai where he received his Baccalauréat at the age of 19.[8] He then trained under a number of distinguised Paris physicians including René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laënnec(1781–1826), Baron Guillaume Dupuytren (1777–1835),François Magendie (1783–1855), and Léon-Jean-Baptiste Cruveilhier (1791–1874).[9] He graduated in medicine in Parisin 1831 and presented his Thèse de Médecine, a monograph on burns, before returning to his native Boulogne where he opened a practice. Duchenne married in 1831, but his wife died of puerperal fever during childbirth two years later. Duchenne’s mother in law spread rumours that the death of his wife was caused by the fact that only he was present at the delivery, and after this he was kept separate from his only son by his wife’s family, only to be reunited with him near the end of his life.

In 1835, Duchenne began experimenting with therapeutic “électropuncture” (a technique recently invented by Magendie and Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière by which electric shock was administered beneath the skin with sharp electrodes to stimulate the muscles). After a brief and unhappy second marriage, Duchenne returned to Paris in 1842 in order to continue his medical research. There, he developed a non-invasive technique of muscle stimulation that used faradic shock on the surface of the skin, which he called “électrisation localisée“. He articulated these theories in his work, On Localized Electrization and its Application to Pathology and Therapy, first published in 1855.[7] A pictorial supplement to the second edition, Album of Pathological Photographs (Album de Photographies Pathologiques) was published in 1862. A few months later, the first edition of his now much-discussed work, The Mechanism of Human Physiology,[10] was published. Were it not for this small, but remarkable, work, his next publication, the result of nearly 20 years of study, Duchenne’s Physiology of Movements, Demonstrated with the Aid of Electrical Experimentation and Clinical Observation, and Applicable to the Study of Paralyses and Deformations,[11] his most important contribution to medical science, might well have gone unnoticed.

Despite his unorthodox procedures, and his often uncomfortable relations with the senior medical staff with whom he worked, Duchenne’s single-mindedness and relentless and exacting research, soon obtained him an international standing as a neurologist at the forefront of his field. Moreover, he is considered as one of the developers of electro-physiology and electro-therapeutics. By electricity he also determined that smiles resulting from true happiness not only utilize the muscles of the mouth but also those of the eyes. Such “genuine” smiles are known as Duchenne smiles in his honor. He is also credited with the discovery of Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Duchenne died of haemorrhagic bleeding in 1875, after several years of illness.

Duchenne effectively used the newly invented medium of photography to capture electrically induced expressions of his subjects, but wasn’t able to record the actual movement of the facial muscles, a fact he complained about in his writings.

Facial expression through electrical stimulation

Facial expression through electrical stimulation