Rudolphe Töpffer's Graphic Novels: A Rhetorical Study of Hegel’s Aesthetics of Physiognomy

Curator's Note

I recently completed a book-length translation of Rudolphe Töpffer’s art treatises on the invention of the graphic novel genre (what he called literature in prints).[1] In “Of a Genevan Painter” (1830), Töpffer positions his invention of the graphic novel as an attempt to engage students who are “apparently not well-suited to this study” of Latin (a general education requirement at the time). Writing about a particular student, he explains that he set “him to using the tools he preferred, by which I mean pens and paper; sketching images in his notebooks in such a way that you would have found a beautiful Roman slaying a Carthaginian instead of a single word of proper Latin” (32).

A few years earlier (1827/28), Töpffer received encouragement from Goethe, a highly regarded contemporary literary figure, who, according to Johann Eckermann and Fédéric Soret, Goethe’s editors, responded, “This is mad stuff, indeed!,” it “all sparkles with talent and intelligence,” and “Töpfer [sic] appears to me to stand quite upon his own two feet, and to be as thoroughly original a talent as I have met” (503-504). With this encouragement, Töpffer began to take seriously the study and rhetorical practice of graphic storytelling in his role as a professor in the department of Rhétorique et Belles Lettres at the Academy of Geneva.

Trained as an artist and rhetorician, the work Töpffer produced on the invention of the graphic novel tends to engage with contemporary cultural and philosophical issues. For instance, the “Essai de Physiognomonie” (1845) is dedicated to the study of the then-popular pseudo-scientific theory of physiognomy. However, Töpffer explains that his purpose is not to mount “another grand system,” like “some [other] authors” who have been “carried away by the urge of building systems” (4). Rather, the essay focuses on the aesthetic and rhetorical observations he had collected over the course of his career, a report that reads like a response to Hegel’s call, in his 1822-29 lectures on fine art, to “embark on an exhaustive discussion of what parts, traits, and configurations of the body are completely adequate to express a specific inner mood” (716)—the “inner mood” being one of Töpffer’s primary concerns in the essay.

This slideshow serves to introduce Töpffer’s contribution to this exhaustive discussion, re-motivating Hegel’s aesthetic philosophy into the rhetorical invention of graphic novels through five images from his 1842, “Essai d’Autographie.”[2]



1. This project forthcoming from Parlor Press.

2. This essay is comprised of a series of single-panel drawings composed during an 1842 excursion in the Swiss Alps.



Eckermann, Johann Peter. Conversations of Goethe with Eckermann and Soret. Trans. John Oxenford. London: George Bell & Sons, 1875. Print.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (2 Volumes). Trans. T. M. Knox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975/2010. Print.

Töpffer, Rudolphe. “D’une Peintre Genevois.” Geneva: P. A. Bonnant, 1830. Print.

—. Essai d’Autographie. Geneva: Schmidt, 1842. Print.

—. Essai de Physiognomonie. Geneva: Schmidt, 1845. Print.


nice piece! how do you see the development from töpffer's 'graphic novel illustrations of philosophical arguments' to people like chris ware, who employs the structure and possibilities of the medium to reflect on time and memory, or nick sousanis' phd-thesis in graphic novel form, unflattening?

Bernd, I think Ware and Sousanis are doing really interesting things with comics and pushing the genre in new directions, and I see them as being heavily philosophical. Ware has a discussion in an issue of Critical Inquiry that gestures toward contemporary material cultures, specifically thinking about the "book as object." There's also a fascinating media artist, Özge Samanci, who has been doing work on GPS navigated comics that extends McCloud's idea of the infinite canvas to include the entire physical world (I'm working on an article on the project this year). Recovering Töpffer's work, I think, is invaluable as the genre continues playing with applied philosophy in the age of electronic media (and electracy).

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