Profile Portraiture

A Techno-Art Interlude

Meriwether Louis and William Clark lived during the golden age of an era that was rooted in the intellectual, religious, artistic, and political hotbed of mid-17th century France. Intellectually, it was driven by the human capacity for inductive logic—from the specific to the general—and consequently was called the Age of Reason,1 or Enlightenment. In religion and philosophy the outcome was Deism, which linked human reason with nature, and both reason and nature with God. The Enlightenment inspired the growth of the natural sciences such as botany, biology, archaeology2, and geology; it drew upon higher mathematics to facilitate world-wide exploration on land and sea, and to improve mapping. It gave rise to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn inspired the technological developments that are the foundations of many other aspects of 21st-century life. Politically, their world reached its apogee with the American and French Revolutions. In the arts, the Enlightenment embraced Classic values drawn from Greek and Roman histories and cultures, which inspired architects with the principles of formal symmetry, clean straight lines, and restrained ornamentation.


In England those Neoclassical values were assimilated in the Georgian style of architecture, so-called because it lasted throughout the consecutive reigns of the four Hanoverians who ruled Great Britain from 1714 until 1830. The Georgian style proved adaptable to the democratic standards and tastes of post-Revoutionary America, and prevailed throughout the Federalist era, until the onset of Jacksonian Populism. It was exemplified around Philadelphia by fine homes such as George Logan's mansion, "Stenton," as well as in the residence intended for the President, and especially, with suitable symbolism, in the buildings that housed the First and Second Banks of the United States. The spirit of Neoclassicism touched even the daily lives of the upper echelons of society, even in men's and women's fashions (Notice the "Brutus" haircut in Charles Willson Peale's 1807 portrait of Meriwether Lewis.)

Greco-Roman antiquity was also reflected among the decorative arts in various aspects of everyday life during the Enlightenment. Around the middle of the 18th century, portraits of prominent men and women in profile pose, often framed in roundels, evoked the spirit of ancient coins featuring likenesses of leaders. The first Indian peace medals, which were minted during George Washington's administration, served a similar purpose. The popularity of profile portraits received significant impetus from a revival of the Medieval "science" of physiognomy by a Swiss clergyman named Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1811). Lavater propounded the theory that a person's facial and cranial features represented his or her psychological, intellectual, emotional, and moral qualities. As he summarized the principle in his Essays on Physiognomy (1775-78; first U.S. edition, 1794; later editions to 1880), the shape of the skull is the outward and visible indicator of a person's inner essence and character.3 Lavater's theory made profile portraiture more meaningful than ever before, with a potential for universal appeal which today would spawn endless TV infomercials.

Six-Cent Silhouettes

Simplest and least expensive to produce was a silhouette,4 or "shade," cut out of white paper which was cemented over a background of black paper or cloth. Previously, artists had based profile portraits on silhouettes drawn by tracing the outline of a sitter's shadow in a large camera obscura, which usually involved a strong light source, a lens to focus the light, and delicate adjustments to insure that the shadow was true and undistorted. In 1802 the British-born Philadelphian, John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1805)5, invented a new kind of copy machine, a pantograph with which a person could produce a miniature copy of his or her profile through direct contact. He called it a physiognotrace, a term which, as we shall see, had recently been introduced to describe any device that could be used to copy—specifically, trace—a semblance of a subject's physiognomy.

Explanation of Mr. John I. Hawkins Physiognotrace

To see labels, point to the image.

interactive illustration of a machine with an adjustable frame

Watercolor by Charles Willson Peale
(original size, 8-1/2 x 7-3/4 inches)
enclosed in a letter to Thomas Jefferson,
January 28, 1803.

Jefferson had written to Peale: "I was struck with the notice in the papers of mr Hawkins's physiognotrace, of the work of which you send me some specimens. . . . when you shall have nothing else to do I would thank you for an explanation of the principle of it." Peale promptly replied: "The Physiognotrace invented by Mr. Hawkins," Peale wrote to Jefferson, "is made strong, because subject to be handled by all sorts of People that visit the Museum. The enclosed drawing and explanation of it, is rough, but correct—and I hope will give you a perfect Idea of all the essential parts of it."6

A is a board that moves up and down in the frame B, B. which is fastened to the wall with brackets C, C.— This movement is convenient to suit the height of different persons, and it is secured to the place by means of a screw on the back part,— D is a hollowed board projecting 2-1/2 Inches, to allow the Pantagraph to move behind it. The person to be traced, setting in a chair rests their head [i.e., ear] on the concave part, & the hollow of the board below imbraces the shoulder—The Physiognotrace is fixed to the board A at a, and in the center of the point b, is a conic steel point with a spring to press it against the paper represented by the dot[t]ed line. The steel point is taken off the paper by means of a lever; having the upper end turned at a right angle and the spring in a wedge form, and the other end extended to the point on the right to begin [reach?].

C is an Index made of brass, the point of which has plate on each side connected by a center pin.— to the outer plate is screwed a piece of brass 5 Inches long, with a thin edge, which edge is exactly perpendicular to the center of the joint.

This Index moving round to trace any subject that the edge is kept too, as it moves, the steel point in the center of the upper joint gives a diminished size a perfectly correct representation. The paper to be traced is fixed on a square board by means of an iron rim, and it is in turn placed on a door hinged to the back part of Machine, & shut into a [rabit? (rabbet?)] made to receive & keep it at a proper distance from the steel point.

Neither Peale's description nor his illustration are quite as clear or complete as he may have intended. In the last sentence, for example, the location of the paper frame is apparent, but the details that follow are invisible in his watercolor. The "conic steel point" referred to in the first paragraph scribed a thin line on the paper to guide the scissors one used to cut out the silhouette.

The relative positions of the arms and the pencil, as well as the axis at a were all permanently fixed, so that the proportion between the original and the copy was permanent, and the resultant silhouette was invariably one-eighth of full size. Hawkins's objective was to make his physiognotrace easy for absolutely anyone to use.


Hawkins sold his invention to Charles Willson Peale, who set it up in his Museum for the amusement of his patrons. The 25-cent admission to the Museum included free use of the physiognotrace, with a charge of only one cent for a small sheet of paper. Scissors were provided so the sitter could cut out the silhouette. Soon Peale turned the concession over to his servant, Moses Williams who made himself available to customers who were not economy-conscious or didn't want the tedious job of cutting out their own profiles. Williams would operate the physiognotrace and, by folding a large sheet of paper twice, cut out four copies of a silhouette for a total of six cents for the tracing and cutting. The attraction was so popular that within the first year, as the "rage for profiles" exploded, Williams served more than 8,800 customers, nearly two-thirds of them men.7

Still, Hawkins's invention did not satisfy everyone. Meanwhile, there was another market for profile portraits of a different type, which was served by a slightly older technology, and was the province of qualified artists.

Charles Saint-Mémin

Among the the earliest artists in the U.S. to create profile portraits was the Boston engraver Nathaniel Hurd, beginning in 1762. The prime exponent of the genre, however, was Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852), a French refugee who emigrated to the United States in 1796, and remained until 1814. In New York he entered into a partnership with the French artist and émigré Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763-1846), and advertised "Physiognotrace likenesses engraved."8

The physiognotrace (in French, physionotrace) was originally conceived and prototyped about 1784 at Versailles by Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754-1811), who was employed as a cellist in the court orchestra of King Louis XVI. According to a sketch and description by his associate, Edme Quenedey, in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, Chrétien's physiognotrace resembled a vertical easel about two feet wide and five feet high. A wood panel on which blank paper could be mounted was centered at about the middle third of the easel. The subject was seated behind the panel, facing toward one side or the other, probably resting his or her head or back against a support in order to restrain movement. A pantograph, attached vertically to bars at the bottom front of the stand, had an eyepiece at its top with crosshairs through which an operator could trace the outline of the seated subject's head and shoulders. As the artist moved the eyepiece, a pencil at the lower end of the pantograph arm drew the profile on the paper at a 1-to-1 ratio. The operator could also trace the outlines of the profile's superficial features such as the eyes, nose, lips, ears, hair, and clothing.

Within two minutes or less, Quenedey explained, the tracing was done. The result was an image of "great truthfulness that . . . astonishes the most skillful artists. They compare these portraits to those which have been cast from life." In the next four or five minutes the operator-artist went over the pencil drawing with black chalk, and finished by filling in the features, textures, shadows and highlights in full detail, using white chalk for highlights. The portrait was finished in a total of about six minutes. "It will be easy," wrote Quenedey, "not to confuse these portraits with those called silhouettes, which only offer the exterior contour of the head in place of these which give all the details of the most carefully made portrait." If the customer wished, the key elements of the image could be copied with another pantograph at a reduced scale—typically between 2 and 5 inches high—on a copper plate, for engraving. From the finished engraving 12 prints could be made "without losing anything of the resemblance," for an equivalent of US$3.9


To see labels, point to the image.

Tracing machine as described in this article

This is the type of instrument Saint-Mémin would have used to make reduced copies of his full-sized chalk drawings for engraving. To set the proportion of the copy, 2, to the original image, 1, the main axis at E could be set at a given point of the graduated scale on arm A-B, and the pencil at D could be set at a given point of the graduated scale on arm C-G. A string or wire from the tracing stylus to the pencil, F-A-C-D, was used to raise and lower the pencil.

The full-sized originals ranged in size from 50.8 to 54.6 centimeters (20 to 21½ inches), and from 36.8 to 42.5 centimeters in width (12½ to 16¾ inches). Saint-Mémin employed both etching and engraving in his copperplate work, executing the dark backgrounds with a roulette of his own manufacture. After about a year during which the two turned out some 150 portraits, most of which were engraved, the partnership dissolved when Valdenuit returned to France. Saint-Mémin took over the physiognotrace, and engaged another émigré, Louis Lemet, as his assistant.

In 1798 Saint-Mémin moved to Philadelphia, where he spent the next four years, making some 270 portraits for a well-to-do clientele. An advertisement announced that "the original portrait, [copper] plate and twelve impressions" cost $25 for gentlemen, $35 for ladies; "the portrait without engraving, may be had for 8 dollars." He enlarged his customer base beginning in 1803 by spending periods of several months successively in other Eastern cities such as Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, and especially Washington, where Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark, were among his sitters, as well as a number of the Plains Indians who visited the President there between 1804 and 1807, including the Mandan chief, Sheheke, and his wife, Yellow Corn.

Altogether, in the years between 1798 and 1814, when he returned to France, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin turned out more than a thousand life-sized chalk drawings, watercolors, and small copperplate portraits that comprise a catalog of many of the most important personages in America during those years.11 Later in life, writing of that luminous phase of his career, he wrote:

The creation of my little engravings is so much my own work that I was obliged to be at the same time draughtsman and engraver, builder of pantograph, physionotrace and small-sized press, manufacturer of roulettes and other instruments necessary to engraving, brayer of my ink, and, furthermore, my own printer.

For my ability in the drawing phase of art I make no claims, since I made use of an instrument in order to obtain the most essential features, and since, if there is any merit in the delicacy and studied exactness of the likeness, the draughtsman owes his ability, so entirely independent of his efforts, to providence.12

The popularity of the profile portrait and the silhouette began to diminish around 1806—although Hawkins's physiognotrace remained a popular attraction at Peale's Museum until well after the proprietor's death in 1827. Meanwhile, the close detail work involved in engraving may have steadily affected Saint-Mémin's eyesight; by the time he returned to France he was ready to abandon it in favor of oil painting.13 Only thirty years later, photography would add a new dimension to the democratization of portraiture. In the meantime, lithography, a technological advance that had been dormant for several decades, was poised to revolutionize the printing of pictures for a public that was steadily becoming more visually oriented.

1. The story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition provides countless examples of reliance upon the empirical, rational approach to problem-solving. For example, there was Meriwether Lewis's conclusion regarding the mysterious booms he heard in the vicinity of the Falls of the Missouri. Setting aside all theoretical speculation and guesswork, he would have taken action. "I have no doubt but if I had leasure I could find from whence it issued," he announced.

2. Archaeology was never mentioned in the journals, but the captains did reveal their knowledge of the early history of exploration and settlement along the Mississippi and the lower Missouri. Moreover, encouraged by "the inteperter french," they intently studied what appeared to be an "antient fortification" opposite Bonhomme Island. Moulton, ed., Journals, 3:40-41.

The long-standing literary appeal of Greco-Roman culture and philosophy was greatly enhanced in architecture and the decorative arts with the initial excavations, between 1738 and 1763, of the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which had been buried, and thereby preserved for nearly 1700 years, by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

3. Americans were initially introduced to Lavater's theories through a Columbian Magazine article in 1788. Throughout the 19th century the pseudo-science of physiognomy was persistently employed in anthropological studies. See, for example, "Comcomly's Tomb."

4. The word "silhouette" was a sarcasm based on the name of the hyper-conservative, parsimonious French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), which was applied to anything that was inexpensive, economical or, more vulgarly, "cheap."

5. Hawkins, originally an Englishman, was an exceptionally versatile and creative inventor, a paradigm of an Enlightened gentleman. He invented a mechanical string "organ," which C.W. Peale bought as an amusement for his museum patrons; a "Harmonica," similar to a forte-piano but apparently with a superior range between loud and soft; and a "polygraph" by which one could write a letter and make two copies simultaneously. Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, 5 vols. in 6 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983-2000), 5:310-11.

6. Thomas Jefferson to Charles Willson Peale, January 12, 1803; Charles Willson Peale to Thomas Jefferson, January 28, 1803. Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale and His Family, 5 vols. in 6 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983-2000), vol. 2, part 1, 483. Peale's letter continued, "Mr. Hawkins has also contribed another Index, which is designed to give the lines of a 3/4 face; the lines of the hair, eyes, eyebrows &c." That device, however, "would require handling and therefore [is] not fitted for a public Museum."

7. From L'Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert (40 vols., Paris: Inter-Libres, 2001-2002), vol. 22, Dessin—Peinture [Design—Painting], Plate 3.

8. David R. Brigham, Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale's Museum and Its Audience (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 71-72.

9. Ellen G. Miles, Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 43-45.

10. "Laid" paper had a slightly ribbed surface resulting from a mold in which thin wires, or "laid lines," intersected with thicker wires, or "chain marks." Rag paper has cotton fiber content of 25% or more.

11. The largest of the copperplate engravings were 2 5/8 inches high by 2 3/4 inches inches in width.

12. Miles, 198.

13. Brigham, 70.