The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America
by Wendy Bellion
Department of Art History
posted: december 19, 1999
[This is the text of a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 8, 1999. Please do not cite, quote, or circulate without the author's permission.]
| 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
Stafford 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."
This paper 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
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.
| The meaning of
likeness in eighteenth-century painting
For portraitists, 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.
An analysis of John Singleton Copleyís 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
Art theorists, however, urged portraitists to do more than
depict external appearances: no likeness was complete, they
argued, unless it also communicated a sitterís internal nature.
Jonathan Richardson, whose 1715 Essay on the Theory of
Painting influenced a century of portraitists, was explicit
on these matters:
It is 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. 
In practice, 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.
This dogma 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 Tyngís 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.
Copley's portraits 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
| The physiognotrace
Painters 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 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
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
In 1783-84, 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 sitterís 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.
Profile machines 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 "whoís-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 physiognotrace.
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 buyers.
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, Hawkinsís 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.
Third, Hawkins's 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.
One profile 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
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 to him."
The lucrative potential of Hawkinsís 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 Pealeís 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 Lavaterís
Essays on Physiognomy as the work that instigated the
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 itself.
Lavater's 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:
Conceal 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 complaisance.
Lavater's theories were popular in the U.S., and there is
evidence that people used silhouettes to exercise their knowledge
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.
These observations, 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 and evaluated.
| Truth, line, and
Portraits 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 Rubensís 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:
The two 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.
Queneday's 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:
'Tis almost herself, Eliza's shade,
Thus by the faithful facietrace pourtray'd!
Her placid brow and pouting lips, whose
My fond impatient ardor would repell.
Let me then take that vacant seat, and
Inhale her breath, scarce mingled with
And thou blest instrument! which o'er her
Did'st at her lips one moment pause, retrace
My glowing form and leave, unequall'd bliss!
Borrow'd from her, a sweet etherial Kiss.
Such are the pleasures, Peale, attend
To expand the finest feelings of the
Peter Benes has suggested that "the mechanical accuracy of
portrait making seemingly eclipsed the value of the portrait
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.
Line, the 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 loverís 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:
Blest be the pencil! which from death can
The semblance of the virtuous, wise and
...Oh! Love, it was thy glory to impart
Its infant being to this magic art!
Inspired by thee, the soft Corinthian maid
Her graceful lover's sleeping form portray'd
Her boding heart his near departure knew;
Yet longed to keep his image in her view:
Pleas'd she beheld the steady shadow fall,
By the clear Lamp upon the even wall:
The line she trac'd with fond precision
And, 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 of Genius.
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.
Line also 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.
Diametrically opposed to line was the other main component
of painterly depiction: color.
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:
Whilst the 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.
American painters, 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
Increasingly, 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.
These anxieties 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 instrumentís
Contradictions 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 painterís 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
| The politics of
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.
Contemporaneously, 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
During America's 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 are represented."
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 distorting appearances.
This growing 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
These notions 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.
To underscore 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.