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Languages, Cultures and Visual Studies

Photo of Professor Melissa Percival

Professor Melissa Percival

Professor of French, Art History and Visual Culture


01392 724210


Academic background

Melissa Percival grew up in Nottingham and 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, the University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès. Her research has previously been supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. She currently holds a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2023-25) to undertake research into French printed textiles.  


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. Her most recent book is Fancy in European Visual Culture, (2020) in the series Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment. Melissa's latest research on textiles is profiled here.


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.

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  Areas of specialism: Art, visual culture and history of ideas of eighteenth-century France. The human face, as it appears at the intersections of art, aesthetics, literature, science and the history of ideas. Theories of the imagination. French printed textiles, including indiennes and toile de Jouy.   Melissa Percival's doctoral research was on theories of physiognomy and facial expression during the Enlightenment period. Her first book, The Appearance of Character, showed how controversial theories linking character and physical appearance gained respectability through the discourses of empirical rationalism, connoisseurship and human aspiration. Her next monograph, Fragonard and the Fantasy Figure offered a new interpretation of the series of dazzling and enigmatic figure paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard; these were situated in a wider context of single-figure paintings that blur genre boundaries, pose questions about identity and challenge the viewer. Giving tangible form to her earlier research, Melissa curated an exhibition of European fantasy figures at the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, in 2015-16. Her identification of the European fantasy figure, and consequent remapping of art history, has been hailed by Colin Bailey in the Burlington Magazine as 'a lasting contribution'. A further collaboration exploring the connections between art and imagination, creativity and consumer culture, resulted in an edited volume, Fancy in Eighteenth-Century Visual Culture (2020). Drawing on facets of her earlier work, Melissa's latest research is on memory, materiality and colonial history in French printed textiles. Foregrounding the manufacture of Christophe Philippe Oberkampf at Jouy-en-Josas, it explores the origins and legacy of indiennage and toile de Jouy.     

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Research students

  Current students
  • Sebastian Tym, Gustave Doré's Hisory of Holy Russia
  • Nihan Cetintas, Turquerie and Consumption in Britain, 1717-1775

Completed PhDs

  • Rebecca Ford. Man and the Animal Kingdom: D’Holbach and the Encyclopédie’. 
  • Madeleine Percival. Women’s Memoirs from the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
  • Paul Willis. The Italian sketch books of Joshua Reynolds.
  • Maria Anesti. Eremitic landscape dwelling in Confucian China and Enlightenment Europe.
  • Nigel Pratt. Decorative Plasterwork in Devon and Somerset c.1560-1670.

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Copyright Notice: Any articles made available for download are for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the copyright holder.

| 2024 | 2023 | 2020 | 2019 | 2017 | 2015 | 2014 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2001 | 2000 | 1999 |


  • Percival M. (2024) Decolonial practices around “Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit” (formerly “Portrait of an African”), in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter, Interfaces (, volume 50.


  • Percival M. (2023) Dare to Wear: Performing the Prohibition of Indiennes on the Streets of Paris, Early Modern French Studies, volume 45/1. [PDF]


  • Percival M, Adrien M. (2020) Fancy in Eighteenth-Century European Visual Culture, Voltaire Foundation. [PDF]
  • Percival M, Adrien M. (2020) Fancy in Eighteenth-Century European Visual Culture, Voltaire Foundation. [PDF]


  • Percival MH. (2019) La singerie chez Marivaux, Le singe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles: Figure de l'art, personnage litteraire et curiosite scientifique, Herrmann, 193-207. [PDF]






  • Percival MH. (2008) The Image of the 'Actor': Fictional Portraits and Blurred Identities in French Painting, Word and Image in the Eighteenth Century, Cambridge Scholars’ Publishing, 190-209. [PDF]


  • Percival MH. (2007) Fragonard and Pastiche: The Case of the Girl in Spanish Costume at Dulwich, Enlightenment and Tradition; Women's Studies; Montesquieu, Voltaire Foundation, 47-64.


  • Percival MH. (2005) Physiognomy in Profile: Lavater’s Impact on European Culture, University of Delaware Press. [PDF]


  • Percival MH. (2004) Graffigny et La Font de Saint Yenne, Françoise de Graffigny, femme de lettres: écriture et réception, Voltaire Foundation, 179-109. [PDF]


  • Percival MH. (2003) Sentimental Poses in the Souvenirs of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, French Studies, volume 57, no. 2, pages 149-165, DOI:10.1093/fs/57.2.149.
  • Percival MH. (2003) Johann Caspar Lavater: Physiognomy and Connoisseurship, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, volume 26, no. 1, pages 77-90.


  • Percival MH. (2001) The Expressive Heads of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Gazette des beaux-arts, volume 138, no. 1594, pages 203-215.
  • Percival MH. (2001) Ecstatic Virgins and Bearded Mystics: Some Examples of the Expressive Head in French Art, Voltaire Foundation, 429-444. [PDF]


  • Percival MH. (2000) The 'Jeu de Physionomie', or Pathognomical Proteus, Voltaire Foundation, 121-129. [PDF]
  • Percival MH. (2000) L’Anecdote dans la critique d’art: l’exemple des 'Mémoires secrets', Anecdotes, faits-divers, contes, nouvelles 1700-1820, Peter Lang, 207-225. [PDF]
  • Percival MH. (2000) Greuze’s Heads and the Dissolution of the Genres, Corporeal Practices: (Re)figuring the Body in French Studies, Peter Lang, 45-60.


  • Percival MH. (1999) The Appearance of Character: Physiognomy and Facial Expression in Eighteenth-Century France, Modern Humanities Research Association. [PDF]

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