Decline of Perceived Beauty: Facial Representations between the 18th and 20th Century in Western Art

TBeautyExplCritPersFronthis study focuses on the question of beauty standards defined by scientific methodology in terms of face symmetry and averageness. This definition correlates with art history and the human faces depicted in a large set of artworks. Recent research in evolutionary psychology and neuro-aesthetics suggests that the attractiveness of a face can be conceptualized as the sum of a varied set of distinct features. These aspects are described in terms of averageness, symmetry, sexual dimorphism, pleasant expressions, and youthfulness. First we collected a dataset of more than 120,000 paintings and then applied industry standard face recognition algorithms to extract facial traits. Then we studied how portraits of faces could be considered more or less beautiful across time and lastly, we noted when beauty trends evolved. Our study focuses on 18th century painting styles such as Rococo and Neoclassicism, which adhere to strict conventions of symmetry and realistic depictions of the human anatomy. It extends until the Impressionist and the Avant-Garde eras that broke with these conventions. Our analysis reveals a particular decline in face averageness and symmetry that demonstrates a shift in artistic styles over time. It evolved from a naturalistic representation of the human face, which is to say, from bearing resemblance to the natural human anatomy to an abstract representation that deconstructed facial features, such as in Picasso’s paintings. A face averageness graph exhibits a sharp decline in averageness and symmetry from the 18th century onward indicating that beauty conventions and standards regarding the representation of the human face in art varies greatly. The early 20th century marks a complete break in facial representation in portraits. This analysis also reveals a change in beauty perception and conventions arising at the beginning of the 20th century that expressed a newfound preoccupation for discovering and depicting facial features.

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