In a 1997
article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,
the art historian Barbara Maria Stafford called for greater
attention to the ways in which the digital revolution has altered
the creation, dissemination, and perceptual experience of visual
imagery. The most immediate consequence of these technological
changes has been an exponential growth in the quantity of images
that we see everyday. While this observation is familiar, Stafford's
response is not: she argues that our comfort with linguistic
models of communication and our long-standing cultural distrust
of vision has left us unequipped to understand, critique, or
profit from these rapidly evolving modes of representation.
In order to keep pace with new computer imaging techniques as
well as changes in film, cartography, and other visual media,
Stafford recommends honing our "visual competence." University
courses about the production, transmission, and reception of
various kinds of images could encourage students to appreciate
"the cognitive, affective, and expressive potential of imagery."
The multiple benefits of this course of education would include
a generation of trained "imagists," a deeper knowledge of the
ways in which pictures carry meaning, and an expansion of public
opportunities for those who teach or exercise the skills of
has two further purposes. First, she reminds us that ours is
not the first age to grapple with transformations in visual
media. The development of perspectival representation in fifteenth-century
Italian painting, which forced individuals to comprehend space
in radically new ways, readily springs to mind as a particularly
dramatic example from the past. Second, she cautions us to be
wary of efforts to invest certain forms of imagery with the
status of truth. "Think of what the impact on the Rodney King
trial might have been," she observes, if jurors had been informed
about the ways that "videotapes can be edited to appear seamless."
takes up both of Stafford's points in examining a significant
transition in visual representation that occurred in the United
States during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.
I analyze portraiture, the most widely practiced artistic genre
in post-revolutionary America. The thousands of finely wrought
oil portraits that survive from this era show us a world in
which elaborate dress and attentive postures conveyed nuances
of personal and political identity. But in the decade between
1795 and 1805, portraiture underwent important changes. Americans
embraced the manufacture of portraits by the physiognotrace:
a portable, mechanical instrument that enabled its operators
to generate multiple black-and-white profiles quickly and economically.
The popularity of this method cannot be overemphasized: the
proprietor of one physiognotrace capitalized on what he called
the "rage for profiles" by making over 8,000 silhouettes
in just one year.
This study draws upon the recent scholarship
of Peter Benes and Ellen Miles to review the several kinds of
profile machines adopted in the United States. At greater length,
I consider the changes that this technology effected in the
aesthetics of "likeness," the concept that structured the whole
enterprise of portraiture, and suggest how profiles carried
a political resonance within the ardently democratic culture
of Jeffersonian America.
of likeness in eighteenth-century painting
likeness was the essence and end of their art. Likeness is a
deceptively straightforward concept, and one that had historically
specific meanings for eighteenth-century painters and aestheticians.
First and foremost, the task of a portraitist was to depict
a convincing resemblance of his client, known as the "sitter."
That process required close observation of the qualities that
combine to make each person unique, such as age, gender, and
size. Paradoxically, however, painters also often used etiquette
books, prints, emblem books, and other portraits to fashion
their sitters as individuals. The gestures, poses, costumes,
props, and settings of figures in these texts and images were
recycled throughout generations of artistic production to form
a standardized pictorial language. These familiar visual conventions
made portraits legible and meaningful for sitters and spectators.
of John Singleton CopleyĖs portrait of Samuel Adams (Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston, ca. 1770-72) shows how these elements
together forged something called likeness. Copley pictured Adams
in the tall, alert pose of a determined orator and cast him
in the plain, unornamented suit favored by radical Whigs. Adams
gazes forcefully at his spectators and gestures pointedly at
the legal petitions and charters unfurled upon the table. Just
visible behind him looms a row of classical columns, emblems
of justice and order. Through this repertory of visual signs,
Copley offered viewers the information that they needed to recognize
Adams as a revolutionary activist.
however, urged portraitists to do more than depict external
appearances: no likeness was complete, they argued, unless it
also communicated a sitterĖs internal nature. Jonathan Richardson,
whose 1715 Essay on the Theory of Painting influenced
a century of portraitists, was explicit on these matters:
not enough to make a tame insipid resemblance of the features,
so that every body shall know who the picture was intended
for, nor even to make the picture what is often said to be
prodigious like (this is often done by the lowest of face-painters,
but then it is ever with the air of a fool, and an unbred
person). A portrait-painter must understand mankind, and enter
into their characters, and express their minds as well as
their faces: and as his business is chiefly with people of
condition, he must think as a gentleman, and a man of sense,
or it will be impossible for him to give such their true,
and proper resemblances. 
to "enter into their characters" meant trying to represent sitters'
typical airs. Sir Joshua Reynolds famously identified this as
the "general effect" in the biannual Discourses he delivered
to students of London's Royal Academy: "The likeness of
a portrait," he explained, "consists more in preserving
the general effect of the countenance, than in the most minute
finishing of the features, or any of the particular parts."
Reynolds's contrast between "general" and "particular"
formed the central thesis of his theory of artistic imitation.
On the one hand, this notion served to distinguish the kind
of subject matter that he believed was suitable for representation
from that which was deemed unseemly. Portraitists were thus
encouraged to "elevate" and "improve" the character of their
sitters by disregarding their warts and moles.
But this juxtaposition of terms also differentiated
acceptable styles of representation from improper ones.
One way to evoke
a "general effect" was to paint with wide brushes and in long, thick
strokes. This loose, yet firm, handling of paint created fluid forms
that appeared solid when viewed from a distance. This manner of
depiction, moreover, was associated with the metaphysical qualities
of beauty and truth because it sought to represent nature in its
ideal state. "Particular" and "minute finishing" connoted far different
methods and meanings. These words signaled the use of fine, stiff
brushes to record the tiniest details of appearance. At best, this
technique was understood to be the foundation of artistic practice,
the skill that young artists acquired in the first years of their
education. At worst, it was derided as the mechanical style of servile
copyists. Those who labored to create "tame, insipid resemblances,"
as Richardson commented, were faulted for following nature too closely
instead of improving upon its observable imperfections. "Minute"
portraits were criticized as too "exact," too "ornamental," and
were even called "false" likenesses.
endowed portraitists who followed the prescription of "general
effect" with certain privileges. The painter who could apprehend
and depict character claimed skills of perception and representation
that far surpassed those of ordinary people. Furthermore, the
call to ennoble sitters licensed portraitists to alter their clients'
appearances. This could be as simple as ignoring facial blemishes
or, as in Copley's portrait of Ann Tyng (Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, 1756), as elaborate as painting a wealthy Bostonian as
a rural shepherdess.
To modern eyes, this portrait looks thoroughly incongruous; a
woman with lily-white skin, outfitted in sumptuous clothing, acts
the part of peasant girl. But an eighteenth-century spectator
would have seen this portrait differently: as evidence of Ann
TyngĖs urbane familiarity with British masquerade fashions. Copley
cast other sitters in costumes borrowed from British prints to
accomplish much the same purpose. Neither Mercy Otis Warren (Museum
of Fine Arts, ca. 1763), Mary Toppan Pickman (Yale University
Art Gallery, 1763), nor Mary Turner Sargent (Fine Arts Museums
of San Francisco, 1763) owned the identical, brilliant, blue satin
dresses in which Copley pictured them. But his fanciful inventions
were created in the interest of likeness: they worked to establish
his female sitters as a recognizable social type, the gentlewoman.
underscore the complex, and often contradictory, nature of likeness
in eighteenth-century portraiture. Likeness was not simply a factual
record of faces and dress; rather, it could be an imaginative
construction, a composite image formed by a painter in cooperation
with his sitter. Moreover, it was not intended to be an exact
duplication of physiognomic appearances, but rather an idealized
expression of internal character.
who wished to circumvent these abstract rules and theories could
readily find other methods of depiction. Between the sixteenth
and eighteenth centuries, artists and inventors devised numerous
drawing instruments designed to simplify representation of the
natural world. Significantly, most of these devices could be operated
by persons without formal artistic training, and all of them turned
upon the notion of transcription. Camera obscuras were among the
first instruments to be popularized. These portable, optical devices
used mirrors to reflect daylight into darkened, enclosed spaces,
such as boxes, tents, or rooms. Lenses focused the light onto
a clear, planar surface, usually a wall or an oiled piece of paper.
A draughtsman then carefully traced the outlines of the images
which materialized upon these surfaces in order to create a picture.
A second type
of drawing instrument was mechanical in nature. "Perspective machines"
were primarily used, like camera obscuras, for representing landscapes.
Their central component was an apparatus called a pantograph,
meaning "universal drafting device."
Robert Dossie explained the pantograph's basic form in his popular
1758 artist's handbook, The Handmaid to the Arts.
Two rows of parallel rods were superimposed and hinged at each
corner to create a frame that could compress or extend, similar
to the motion of an accordion. This moveable device could then
be configured as a drawing machine, like the kind illustrated
by Robert Bradberry in his 1790 perspective manual.
The operator of Bradberry's machine used a stylus located at the
end of a vertical pointer to trace an object visible in the distance
(in Bradberry's case, a house). The pointer was attached perpendicularly
to a simplified pantograph that shifted with the operator's movements.
A pencil attached at the uppermost edge of the pantograph mimicked
the motion of the stylus to reproduce the outlines of the house
upon a piece of paper fixed to the instrument's board.
The term "perspective
machine" best described the kinds of pictures that these instruments
produced, not the instruments' methods. One did not need to know
the complex geometrical theories of perspectival representation
in order to use a perspective machine. Rather, the pantograph
was a copying machine. Its ease of construction and operation
meant that it could readily be adapted to duplicate, enlarge,
or reduce architectural plans, maps, and other images. At the
close of the eighteenth-century, enterprising Europeans realized
its potential for creating a different kind of image: the portrait.
The pantograph quickly became the basis of the various machines
invented for "taking likenesses" in the form of silhouette profiles.
a Frenchman named Gilles-Louis Chrétien devised the "physionotrace"
(in English, "physiognotrace"), an aptly named instrument
designed to trace a subject's physiognomy. Chrétien's partner,
Edme Quenedey, recorded the structure of the physiognotrace in
a drawing of 1788 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France). Chrétien's
device functioned similarly to Bradberry's perspective machine.
Chrétien peered through an eyepiece at a person seated
on the far side of the instrument, then used a bar to follow the
outlines of his sitterĖs face. The bar moved a pantograph along
the vertical length of the device, and a pencil attached to a
joint of the pantograph reproduced the sitter's profile upon a
paper affixed to the center of the instrument. Using black or
colored chalk, Chrétien then added eyes, hair, nostrils,
and other details of his clients' faces and dress to the blank
cavity of their profile drawings. He used these fully resolved
drawings to create twelve engraved prints, which he sold to his
patrons together with the original sketch.
began to surface in American cities during the 1790s. Advertisements
proclaimed the novelty and precision of these instruments, but
did not usually describe their structure. The first, secure documentation
of a physiognotrace in the United States appeared in 1796. J.J.
Boudier, a French artist who had worked in Maryland, set up his
machine at 275 Front Street, Philadelphia and publicized his business
in local newspapers: "...likenesses from any point of view, are
taken Necessarily, in a most striking manner, in a single sitting
of about one hour."
As the art
historian Ellen Miles has explained, profile portraits were not
unfamiliar forms in the United States.
Since the Revolutionary War, Americans had adapted the strict
sideways poses of republican rulers in ancient Roman coins and
medallions for their portraits of George Washington and other
political leaders. Several immigrant and native artists, including
David Boudon and James Sharples, made their living sketching the
profiles of ordinary citizens in prints, pastels, and watercolors.
Silhouettes were especially popular among Pennsylvania's Quakers,
who associated large oil portraits with vanity and materiality.
But for many others, the physiognotrace introduced new methods
of portrayal. Its most successful proprietor was another French
émigré, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de
Saint-Mémin, who ran a thriving business in New York together
with his countryman, Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit. Like Chrétien
and Boudier before them, Saint-Mémin and Valdenuit engraved
plates from the original profile drawings, then sold sets of the
drawing, plate, and prints to their clients. Together they generated
145 profile portraits of New York's elite between 1796-98. Saint-Mémin
moved his business to Philadelphia in 1798, then traveled with
his physiognotrace throughout the east coast until 1810, when
he returned to France. In the course of his journeys, he assembled
a veritable "whoĖs-who" profile gallery of federal Americans:
William Barton, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Robert Gilmor,
Thomas Jefferson, and other notables all sat at Saint-Mémin's
In 1802, John
Isaac Hawkins, an Englishman living in Philadelphia, patented
a second kind of physiognotrace and partnered with the artist
and museum proprietor Charles Willson Peale to market it to prospective
Peale made a watercolor sketch of this instrument (Jefferson Papers,
Library of Congress) and installed it in a corner of his museum,
where it quickly became a popular attraction. Like Chrétien's
physiognotrace, HawkinsĖs device was also a pantograph, although
it differed from Chrétien's in several respects. First,
it featured a small brass gnomon designed to survey the physical
topography of a sitter's face. In other words, this instrument
did not trace the visible outlines of a profile; rather, it moved
along the actual structure of the face itself, skimming from forehead
to chin. Second, Hawkins's physiognotrace could be operated either
by an attendant or by a sitter himself.
After a sitter adjusted the instrument's wooden backboard to match
his height, he steadied his cheek against a concave support and
used the gnomon to map his own features. Although some people
chose to have another person operate the machine, the physiognotrace
allowed for the possibility that a trained artist need not be
present at the manufacture of a portrait. As I'll later discuss,
this scenario bore important ramifications.
machine generated a far different kind of image than those that
Saint-Mémim made with Chrétien's device. As a sitter
outlined his face, the pantograph moved a steel point which incised
a reduced silhouette upon a folded white paper secured at the
top. The paper was then removed and carefully cut to produce four
identical profiles. The interior shapes, called "blockheads,"
were discarded, and the white paper was set against a dark background
of black, and in at least one case blue, paper or cloth.
This high degree of contrast made the precise shapes of eyelashes,
lips, and wisps of hair strikingly clear. The resulting images
illusionistically appeared solid: these flat, hollow heads seem
to project forward into the viewer's space, like shadows emerging
from vacuous, white fields.
in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia features
the handwritten label, "Moses Williams, cutter of profiles."
This silhouette is remarkable for several reasons. First, it is
one of the few surviving profiles of an African-American.
Second, it offers a visual document of the man who, first as Peale's
slave and later as a freedman, cut profiles for years in Peale's
museum. Charles Willson Peale paternalistically defended Williams
against the prejudices of some museum visitors, and he credited
the physiognotrace's reputation for "correct likeness" in part
to "the perfection of Moses's cutting."
Williams earned six, and later eight, cents for each profile that
he cut, eventually saving enough money to purchase his own house
in Philadelphia. Years later, Peale's son Rembrandt recalled that
Williams's business was so extensive that he amassed two barrels
full of blockheads, "among which were frequently found, by careful
search, the likenesses of many a valued friend or relative, and
sometimes of distinguished personages -- another source of profit
potential of HawkinsĖs physiognotrace was soon recognized by numerous
entrepreneurs around the country who duplicated it for their own
use. Peale tried his best to protect Hawkins's invention by filing
lawsuits against those who violated Hawkins's patent. But professional
artists, as well as those without prior artist training, now began
toting variations of Hawkins's device and other homemade physiognotraces
on their itinerant ramblings for work. Peter Benes estimates that
over thirty profile portraitists were active in New England alone
between 1790 and 1810.
For painters like Edward Malbone, who had labored to find clients
willing to commission a miniature portrait, profiles were a fast
and easy way to earn additional income.
Operators of physiognotraces had no difficulty finding clients:
from the busy port cities of the eastern seabord, through which
PealeĖs son Raphaelle traveled with his "facie-trace" making tens
of thousands of silhouettes, to the small New England taverns
where young Ethan Allen Greenwood set up his machine, Americans
rushed to have their profiles outlined.
Like Charles Willson Peale, Edward Savage and other museum proprietors
bought physiognotraces for their exhibition rooms.
"The Phisiognotrace [sic] has done wonders," the elder
Peale enthused. "Profiles are seen in nearly every house
in the United States of America, never did any invention of making
the likeness of men, meet so general approbation as this has done."
The low cost
of profiles and the speed in which they were made help account
for their huge popularity. Instead of paying fifty dollars or
more for a single oil portrait that required many tiresome sittings
to complete, one could now obtain four paper silhouettes inexpensively
and in a matter of minutes.
Several art historians have also explained what Peale called the
"rage for profiles" as a consequence of the growing
taste for neoclassicism, an artistic and decorative style that
emphasized linear forms and antique imagery, such as cameo portraits.
Others have pointed to the Swissman Johann Casper LavaterĖs
Essays on Physiognomy as the work that instigated the phenomenon.
This minister believed that every individual carried a unique,
divine essence that was externally evinced in the bony structure
of the skull. "Shades," he argued, offered "the truest representation
that can be given of man" and the most "immediate expression of
nature, such as not the ablest painter is capable of drawing by
hand. What can be less the image of a living man than a shade?
Yet how full of speech! Little gold, but the purest."
Extolling the merits of machine-made profiles, Lavater posited
that mechanical drawing was superior to artistic invention. This
idea was expressed visually in a print of Lavater's machine (Machine
for Drawing Silhouettes, Essays on Physiognomy, 1792):
the engraver presents us with a clear view of the instrument,
the sitter, and the candle which casts the sitter's shadow; but
our view of the man tracing the profile is obstructed by the machine
illustrated Essays provided object lessons in the pseudo-science
of physiognomy. One is overwhelmed by the sheer number of silhouettes
that he reproduced and interpreted. Paired side by side, these
profiles assume an evidentiary status: they are presented as the
indisputable records of character itself. Lavater thus claimed
that the forehead and nose of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn,
pictured in the upper left corner of this page, exhibited "penetration
and sound understanding" (Essays on Physiognomy, 1794,
p. 218). The anonymous figure in the lower left corner was a more
challenging subject to read:
the under chin, and an approach to greatness is perceptible; except
that greater variation in the outline is wanting, especially in
the nose and forehead. The choleric phlegmatic man is visible
in the whole; especially in the eyebrows, nose, and bottom part
of the chin; as likewise are integrity, fidelity, goodness and
theories were popular in the U.S., and there is evidence that
people used silhouettes to exercise their knowledge of physiognomy.
But profiles also served more traditional ends. Like watercolor
miniatures, profiles were exchanged as gifts and preserved as
reminders of absent or deceased loved ones. They were occasionally
embellished with ink to suggest curls of hair or ruffles of shirts.
Families framed profiles and displayed them upon walls, and women
gathered the silhouettes of relatives into albums in order to
commemorate marriages or document genealogies.
familiar ones in the art-historical literature about profiles,
underscore the social value of these images for their users. However,
they largely disregard another important aspect: the ways in which
profiles introduced changes in the ways that likeness was represented
Truth, line, and artistic
in oil did not cease to be produced during the era of the silhouette;
rather, the latter offered an alternative means of recording appearance.
Consider two portraits of Rubens Peale -- the third son of Charles
Willson Peale, and an accomplished naturalist and museum manager.
In Rubens Peale with a Geranium (National Gallery of Art,
1801), Rembrandt Peale created an appealing picture of his inquisitive
younger brother. Rembrandt's skilled manipulation of his oil paints
ably conveys the soft texture of Rubens's tousled curls, the shine
of light upon his skin, and the hard, angular spectacles that
traverse his oval face. Rubens poses with a flowering plant, indicative
of his interest in botany, and holds a second pair of spectacles,
suggestive of his scholarly demeanor. By contrast, a contemporary
profile of Rubens appears silent and stark, the negative shade
of RubensĖs vivid self (Library Company of Philadelphia, n.d.).
We may recognize his curly hair, rounded features, and fashionable
high collar; but the silhouette is otherwise emptied of the information
that its counterpart relays.
To our eyes,
the painting might seem to be the fuller, better likeness of Rubens.
But the makers and collectors of profiles claimed exactly the
opposite. For them, the linear simplicity of the black-and-white
silhouette was a far superior likeness than a colorful oil portrait.
This judgment turned in large part upon the same belief that Lavater
held: that profiles revealed essential truths about individuals.
From the moment of their inception, physiognotraces were marketed
as highly accurate and exact means of depiction. Chrétien's
partner, Edme Quenedey, attributed the veracity of profiles to
the fact that they were made rapidly:
minutes, at the most, that I employ for drawing the overall shape
is not enough time for the model's physiognomy to change. From
this comes the great truthfulness that one sees in all the portraits
made with the Physionotrace and which astonishes the most
skillful artists. They compare these portraits to those which
have been cast from life.
brief mention of life casts speaks volumes about the particular
representational qualities that he and his contemporaries attributed
to profiles. These images were not regarded as simple outline
drawings; rather, they were understood to be imprints, material
traces of person's physiognomy and, by extension, his or her private
nature. Charles Willson Peale evoked this notion in his autobiography,
when he praised Hawkins's physiognotrace as a unique method for
"stamping a true likeness and character" [my emphasis].
Peale's other descriptions of the physiognotrace were equally
telling. Lauding its merits in a letter to Jefferson, Peale called
the instrument an "index," as if the marks traced by
the pantograph formed a graphic register of interiority.
For Raphaelle Peale, the profile of one's beloved could even evoke
that person's physical presence. Using the pseudonym "Edmund,"
he issued the following poetic, and somewhat erotic, advertisement
for his own business:
almost herself, Eliza's shade,
by the faithful facietrace pourtray'd!
placid brow and pouting lips, whose swell
fond impatient ardor would repell.
me then take that vacant seat, and there
her breath, scarce mingled with the air:
thou blest instrument! which o'er her face
at her lips one moment pause, retrace
glowing form and leave, unequall'd bliss!
from her, a sweet etherial Kiss.
are the pleasures, Peale, attend thy art,
expand the finest feelings of the heart.
has suggested that "the mechanical accuracy of portrait making
seemingly eclipsed the value of the portrait itself."
To the contrary, the vocal, public insistence on the truthfulness
of profiles suggests that these images were invested with new
values. This rhetoric of veracity likened profiles to copies and
facsimiles, and it endowed them with an empirical status. Moreover,
it made resemblance a quantifiable object and portraiture a matter
of measurement. We've seen how these ideas proved useful for Lavater,
who touted the skull and its shadow as faithful mirrors of the
soul. But the visual qualities of the profile likeness also had
meaning outside of Lavater's project. The linear, acoloristic
aesthetic of profiles and the truth-claims that surrounded them
had significance in relation to wider notions of representation
-- both visual and political -- in early national America.
formative element of profile portraiture, had ancient connotations
in artistic practice. According to the Greek writer Pliny, the
very origins of art could be traced to a single act of drawing:
the moment when a young Corinthian woman outlined her sleeping
loverĖs shadow upon a wall. In a poem recounting the event, the
British writer William Haley evoked the familiar association of
line with truth and precision:
be the pencil! which from death can save
semblance of the virtuous, wise and brave...
Love, it was thy glory to impart
infant being to this magic art!
by thee, the soft Corinthian maid
graceful lover's sleeping form portray'd
boding heart his near departure knew;
longed to keep his image in her view:
she beheld the steady shadow fall,
the clear Lamp upon the even wall:
line she trac'd with fond precision true,
drawing, doted on the form she drew...
By the end
of the eighteenth-century, many Europeans had painted their own
tributes to this mythic origin of art. Joseph Wright of Derby's
The Corinthian Maid (National Gallery of Art, 1783-84)
remains the best-known among them.
In the United States, Jeremiah Paul and John Archibald Woodside
used a British print to produce their own versions of The Origin
of Painting, and Francis Kearny's engraving of the same subject
appeared as the frontispiece to the first edition of The Cabinet
Significantly, then, a narrative which privileged linear drawing
as the foundation of visual representation emerged as an important
theme for painterly depiction just as profile portraiture was
swelling in popularity.
had a metaphysical significance. Sixteenth and seventeenth-century
art theorists had endowed line with properties of the mind: reason,
purity, and truth. The German antiquarian Johann Joachim Winckelmann
further encouraged these associations in his seminal histories
of classical Greek art.
Winckelmann reserved his greatest praise for Greek sculpture,
which he viewed as the nearest approximation of ideal beauty ever
crafted by human hands, and urged modern artists to imitate these
antique forms. His ideas proved especially influential to the
generation of neoclassical artists who thrived in Britain and
France around 1800. William Blake, George Cumberland, and John
Flaxman rendered ancient gods and heroes in a strictly linear
fashion. Their stark, bold drawings and prints implicitly suggested
that line alone was the proper depictive mode for honoring the
noble subjects of history and mythology.
opposed to line was the other main component of painterly depiction:
Because pigments, not line, were used to represent the luxuriant
surfaces of flesh, velvet, and jewels, color was aligned with
pleasure and femininity. It was also, as William Gilpin succinctly
put it, "the vehicle of deception."
Dutch, Flemish, and Venetian artists were routinely championed
as masters of color who could dazzle the eyes and simulate reality.
These characterizations, however, were also used against them.
Henry Fuseli, the Swiss artist who succeeded Reynolds as a president
of the Royal Academy, likened the Venetians' use of color to nothing
less than a seduction by an unabashed tease:
superior principles of the art were receiving the homage of
Tuscany and Rome, the inferior but more alluring charm of color
began to spread its fascination at Venice, from the pallet [sic]
of Giorgione da Castel Franco, and irresistably entranced every
eye that approached the magic of Titiano Vecelli of Cador. To
no colourist before or after him, did nature unveil herself
with that dignified familiarity in which she appeared to Titian.
many of whom cobbled together their education from European art
manuals and treatises, duly ingested these debates about line
and color. In their letters and journals, they often lauded the
merits of line; but in their paintings, they delighted in color's
rich potential. Charles Willson Peale was no exception. In his
Self-Portrait with Angelica and a Portrait of Rachel (Houston
Museum of Fine Arts, c. 1788), Peale foregrounds the paintbrush
and palette that he uses to create his portrait of Rachel, an
image so lifelike that Rachel seems as tangible and sentient as
the scene's ostensibly living figures. Peale here celebrates the
portraitist's capacity to paint figures that appear to speak,
breathe, and move.
however, these talents were linked to practices of deception viewed
as suspect or unethical, such as magic and counterfeiting. Paintings
like Copley's portrait of Ann Tyng underscored the artist's role
as a facilitator of social illusions: the realism of his coloristic
technique effortlessly cast Tyng in the guise of something she
was not. The public worth of artists was further cast into doubt
by the ideology of republicanism. In the earnest political climate
of post-revolutionary America, many worried that art would encourage
the vice of luxury and thus undermine the disinterested, civic
virtues of their newly established republic.
about painters as seducers and deceivers help account for the
widespread enthusiasm for profile silhouettes and the rhetoric
of exactitude that surrounded their production. The physiognotrace
eliminated the two aspects of visual representation that were
allied to deception: color and the artist. The linear, black-and-white
aesthetic of the profile was touted as true, accurate, and rational
in part because it omitted color, the substance that made oil
portraits charming and illusionistic. Perhaps even more significantly,
the physiognotrace made trained artists irrelevant to portraiture
(or, at the very least, to the manufacture of this exceedingly
popular kind of portrait). For centuries, the theory and practice
of portraiture had invested agency and authority in the figure
of the painter: applying his innate gifts of perception and honed
skills of depiction, the portraitist made visible the elusive
quality of "character." Now his time-honored resources
-- genius and invention -- took second-place to an instrumentĖs
lurk here. Professional artists, after all, were among those who
used physiognotraces. Moreover, the instrument was celebrated
in language usually reserved for "bad" portraitists:
it was mechanical, it copied, and it attended to "minuteness"
and "particulars." As the physiognotrace inverted the
hierarchical terms of artistic imitation, the finest likeness
was reconceived as that which did not issue from a painterĖs dissembling
hand. These paradoxes were not lost on artists themselves: even
Raphaelle Peale, one of the most talented painters of his generation,
advertised his machine-made profiles as images "more accurate
than can be executed by the hand of the most eminent artist in
As it distanced
artists from the manufacture of portraits, the physiognotrace
transformed the ways in which a sitter became a represented subject.
The portraitist had functioned traditionally as a kind of middleman
within a system of representation that substituted private, living
bodies with public, painted faces. One might conceive of this
process as triangular: a sitter, in one corner, cooperates with
a painter, in another, to produce a third entity, the image of
the sitter. The physiognotrace realigned this configuration. By
enabling a person to trace his own profile, it introduced an immediate,
linear relationship between a sitter and his portrait. Eradicating
the artist, it offered a radically direct means of representation.
similar notions of direct representation were gaining extraordinary
significance in another sphere of experience: politics. Historians
have long argued that political representation, the process through
which citizens authorized others to represent their interests
in government, was one of the most divisive issues in revolutionary
and early national America. During this period, the very idea
of what it meant to be represented politically underwent rapid
and lasting changes. Historian Gordon Wood emphasizes that "of
all the conceptions of political theory underlying the momentous
developments of the American Revolutionary era, none was more
important than that of representation."
A brief overview of the competing models of "virtual"
and "actual" political representation suggests why representation
became such a critical matter for ordinary Americans.
transition from colony to country, debates about political representation
embraced several different issues. Among them were the representation
of property; the sustainable size of a republic; the location
of state capitals; the expansion of suffrage rights; and the structure
of state legislatures and the federal government. Another key
matter, and the focus of this discussion, concerned the nature
of the relationship between individuals and their representatives.
Americans' changing understandings of these relations were informed
largely by their experiences under and reactions to British rule.
During the 1760s, colonists' perceptions of their lack of Parliamentary
representation became an important basis for their rejection of
the crown's efforts to tax the importation of sugar, paper, and
other goods. In response to these protests, Parliamentary leaders
affirmed that the colonies were indeed represented by England
and began using the term "virtual" to describe the conditions
of their representation. Virtual representation was grounded in
the belief that the British, including British colonists, were
a homogeneous people with shared interests. The greatest interest
of all citizens was the good of the nation; individual needs and
interests fell second to this imperative. This idea of an organic
society with a united national purpose authorized both the crown
and Parliamentary to act in the name of the British people. Political
sovereignty resided with these entities, not with the people,
and legislators were understood to function as substitutes for
their constituents. The concept of homogeneity also resolved an
apparent paradox: most Britons (again, including colonists) did
not hold the qualifications necessary to participate in elections.
A large section of the population was therefore "represented"
by individuals for whom they could not and did not vote. Nevertheless,
it was claimed, the interests of non-voters were represented because
their leaders' interests were synonymous with their own. Tacit
consent, not election, was the basis of legislative power. Thomas
Whately, author of the Stamp Acts, thus observed that no Britons
were "actually" represented by Parliament: instead, all were "virtually
represented; for every Member of Parliament sits in the House,
not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that
august Assembly by which all of the Commons of Great Britain
As long as England's homogeneous interests were upheld, moreover,
representatives did not need to demonstrate any actual similarities
to their constituents. The latters' "particular" and "local" desires
were even understood to be at odds with the protection of the
nation as a whole, and their legislator was in no way beholden
to honor them.
By 1776, colonists
no longer believed that England shared their interests and, hence,
that it no longer commanded the authority to either represent
or rule the colonies. In the immediate wake of independence, Americans
held fast to the principles of virtual representation, for the
success of a republic was thought to depend upon the preservation
of a homogenous population with mutual interests. Virtuality proved
especially appealing to a group of state leaders who rose to power
during the 1780s and lobbied for the formation of a federal government.
"Federalists" envisioned the new government as a meritocracy led
by educated, propertied, and accomplished men. Their ideal of
a "natural aristocracy," however, was at odds with the public's
long-standing conviction in the effectiveness of local political
participation. Since the seventeenth-century, many communities
had experimented with the direct exercise of self-legislation
in town meetings and colonial assemblies. Observing the growing
diversity of the populationin the post-war years, Americans doubted
that a socially elite leadership could represent the interests
of ordinary farmers and mechanics. Their insistence on the rights
of individuals amounted to an implicit critique of homogeneity
as the basis of republican government. Furthermore, Federalists'
efforts to structure a strong, centralized bureaucracy aggravated
citizens' concerns that they were already losing control over
their systems of representation. During the 1780s, state legislatures
were perceived as becoming increasingly detached from the people's
control. Individual representatives also raised suspicions: voters
scrutinized their candidates and delegates for signs of demagoguery
and dissimulation. Politicians, like painters, were accused of
mistrust of existing forms of governance fueled controversies
surrounding the ratification of the Constitution. In such various
forums as newspapers, pamphlets, coffeehouses, and political conventions,
writers and orators probed the very function of political representation.
Events of the 1790s -- the French Revolution, the formation of
political clubs, and Federalist abuses of power -- sped the emergence
of a novel mode of "actual" representation that was resolutely
democratic in its scope and practice. Historians have emphasized
that actual representation did not evolve as a pat, seamless theory.
Rather, it was an experimental project of vast geographical proportions,
heralded as a demonstration of democracy's viability, but also
subject to failure and attack. Nevertheless, actual representation
prompted important changes in the ways in which constituents conceived
of the roles of representatives and their relations to them. Its
advocates countered the classical humanist notion that representatives
should be disinterested public servants by acknowledging the reality
that delegates often pursued their own self-interests at the expense
of their constituents. The knowledge of this inevitability, however,
was the very thing that motivated citizens to devise ways of ensuring
greater transparency in the representational process and to assume
a watchful vigilance over their representatives' actions and decisions.
Elections took on deeper significance as the means through which
individuals would explicitly confer their consent to be represented
by others. Delegates were no longer regarded as all-powerful substitutes
for the citizenry; rather, they were treated as its agents, tools,
and spokesmen, acting upon a limited and partial authority. They
were subject to new residency requirements and legally bound to
abide by their constituents' written instructions. Contrary to
virtual representation's embrace of a national field of interest,
actual representation was insistently local. Citizens would carefully
select delegates from amongst their own communities to ensure
that they shared their constituents' interests. Virtual homogeneity
was no match for the proof of perceptible similarities.
of actuality altered the conceptual structure of political representation.
Strikingly, these changes paralleled those which the physiognotrace
initiated in the field of visual representation during the same
historical period. Each of these modes of representation stressed
that the nature of the relation between a referent and its representative
vehicle was to be exceedingly direct. In the case of actual representation,
citizens desired geographical proximity and personal familiarity
with their elected representatives. They rejected the nebulous
representational promises of virtual representation for a political
system that aligned individuals and delegates in a close one-to-one
relation. Likewise, the physiognotrace tied visual representation
to discrete physical parameters. This method of portraiture replaced
the painter's translation of character to canvas -- a process
riddled with associations of illusionism -- with a methodical
instrument that sitters could use to transcribe their own features.
Actual representation and profile portraiture also attached new
significance to the resemblance between voters and delegates,
and sitters and images: in politics, demonstrable affinities between
a representative and his local constituency became one new measure
of proper representation; in portraiture, outline tracings of
physiognomic particularities were newly appreciated as indelible
marks of appearance and identity. Finally, both systems were believed
to restore truth to representation. By knowing, seeing, and communicating
with their delegates, citizens would keep political representation
actual, honest, and transparent. Likewise, the physiognotrace
invited sitters to view their profile likenesses as precise, unmediated
evidence of their own internal characters.
the structural parallels between these developments in the distinct
fields of visual and political representation is not to suggest
that causal connections existed between them. However, the feverish
celebration of democracy in the late 1790s and early-1800s might
help explain the concurrent, widespread enthusiasm for a representational
process that also emphasized directness, likeness, and accuracy.
At the very least, acknowledging these parallels equips us to
consider the possibility that profile portraits had political
as well as social and aesthetic resonance for their makers and
users. One might even argue that profiles offered a visual analog
of the place of the citizen in this new democratic state: sitting
at the physiognotrace, Americans assumed control over their own
representation, and praised the results as exact and true.