Frowns and Thoughts

The frown is not a hot topic in art history and, though little has been written about it, few features convey meaning so efficiently. Elizabeth Sacks wrote that a pursed brow in Othello immediately indicates thoughts shut up in the brain and so it does in art too.1 But who’s thinking? A deep furrowed brow often appears on odd characters, such as Michalengelo’s David (1501-04) or Ron Mueck's A Girl (2006), where it can only represent the artist’s thoughts as expressed through his alter ego and not the thoughts of the protagonist it seems to represent. When frowns appear on animals, such as St. Jerome's lion in an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, you know at once that the animal, as a self-reference, is thinking. The meaning of a frown is so obvious that Charles Darwin thought the corrugator muscle making it was the most remarkable of the human face because it irresistably conveys the idea of mind.2 

And that's why a large number of Dürer’s portraits are characterized by frowns as well.3 They furrow their foreheads not because they share any similarity on the surface but because all represent underneath the thinking Dürer himself. Thery are common in self-portraits too. Artists, accused in the Renaissance of being just manual labourers, are thinking beings and the frown conveys it. For a dozen examples of such self-portraits, see the post "Art's Unknown Frown" (2013).

1. Elizabeth Sacks, Shakespeare’s Images of Pregnancy (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1980, pp.70-71

2. Richard Gregory, Mirrors in Mind (London: Penguin) 1998, p.5

3. This was noted by Jane Campbell Hutchison who wondered, rather oddly, whether it was "the artist's way of imbuing the sitter with the civic virtue of Fortitude." Hutchison, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 1990, p.65

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