Photo of Professor Melissa Percival

Professor Melissa Percival

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.