Staff profiles

Photo of Professor Melissa Percival

Professor Melissa Percival

Professor (French, Art History and Visual Culture)


01392 724210


Academic background

Melissa Percival did her undergraduate degree in French and German at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. She returned to Cambridge to write an interdisciplinary PhD on facial expression in the Enlightenment period. She was appointed Lecturer at the University of Exeter in 1996 and promoted to a Personal Chair in 2017. In the course of her career she has held visiting positions at the University of Tübingen, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, and the University of California Santa Barbara. She has held Fellowships of the Leverhulme Trust and the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. Among her research grants she has received awards from the British Academy and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. From Jan-June 2018 she will be visiting professor at the University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès.



A specialist in art, literature and history of ideas of the French eighteenth century, Melissa Percival's publications include: Physiognomy and Facial Expression in Eighteenth-Century France (1999), Physiognomy in Profile: Lavater's Impact on European Culture (2005), and Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure: Painting the Imagination (2012). In 2015-16 she co-curated the exhibition 'Ceci n'est pas un portrait': figures de fantaisie de Murillo, Fragonard, Tiepolo at the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. Current projects included an edited book, Fancy-Fantaisie-Capriccio: Diversion and Subversion in Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture, and ongoing research into costume, anecdote and unorthodox forms of self-presentation in portraiture.



Melissa Percival teaches on Exeter's undergraduate degree programmes in both Modern Languages and Art History and Visual Culture. She offers a variety of interdisciplinary and research-led modules, for example on 'the face' and on private life in the eighteenth century, as well as contributing to core French language teaching.

She supervises PhD students on topics connected with the eighteenth-century and also French painting and visual culture. She would be happy to talk to any prospective research students who are interested in working in these areas.

Research interests

The common thread to my research is the human face as it appears at the intersections of art, aesthetics, literature, science and the history of ideas. My first monograph, 'The Appearance of Character' established the notion of 'Enlightened Physiognomics', showing how physiognomical thought in eighteenth-century France gained currency - not uncontroversially - by clothing itself in the discourses of empirical rationalism, connoisseurship and human aspiration. In 'Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure' I offered a new interpretation of the puzzling figure paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, long considered 'unreadable' both historiographically and formally. Expanding and giving tangible form to my earlier work I curated an exhibition, 'Ceci n'est pas un portrait: figures de fantaisie de Murillo, Fragonard, Tiepolo...' at the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse. My identification of the European fantasy figure, and the consequent remapping of art history, has been hailed by Colin Bailey as a 'lasting contribution' (Burlington Magazine, May 2013).
I am nearing completion of an edited book (with Muriel Adrien): Fancy: Fantaisie: Capriccio: Diversion and Subversion in Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture. This builds on my research on the fantasy figure, exploring fancy and caprice widely in visual culture as quirky, rule-breaking forms of creativity and active modes of consumption.
My latest project involves an exploration of portraits and risk.



Research students

Current students
Paul Willis,‘The Italian Sketchbooks of Joshua Reynolds’ (2015-­‐).
Ben Shears, 'The Unknown Voltaire: Science and Experimentation in Voltaire's Later Life' (2017-).
Nigel Pratt, ‘Decorative plasterwork in Devon and Somerset c.1560-­‐1670’ (2013-­‐).
Maria Anesti, 'Oriental Arcadia: ‘The Entangled Histories of Living with Nature in China and Europe’ (2015-­‐).

Other information