The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America

by Wendy Bellion
Department of Art History
Northwestern University

7,242 words
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 Please do not cite, quote, or circulate without the author's permission.]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 visual analysis.[1]

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."[2]

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 centuries.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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 activist.[6]

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. [7]

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."[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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 character.

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 picture.[13]

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."[14] Robert Dossie explained the pantograph's basic form in his popular 1758 artist's handbook, The Handmaid to the Arts.[15] 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.[16] 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.


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.[17]

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."[18]

As the art historian Ellen Miles has explained, profile portraits were not unfamiliar forms in the United States.[19] 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.[20]


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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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 an African-American.[24] 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."[25] 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."[26]


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.[27] 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.[28] 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.[29] Like Charles Willson Peale, Edward Savage and other museum proprietors bought physiognotraces for their exhibition rooms.[30] "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."[31]

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.[32] 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.[33] Others have pointed to the Swissman Johann Casper Lavaterís Essays on Physiognomy as the work that instigated the phenomenon.[34] 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."[35] 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.[36]

Lavater's theories were popular in the U.S., and there is evidence that people used silhouettes to exercise their knowledge of physiognomy.[37] 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.[38]

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 artistic authority

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.[39]

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].[40] 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.[41] 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 swell

My fond impatient ardor would repell.

Let me then take that vacant seat, and there

Inhale her breath, scarce mingled with the air:

And thou blest instrument! which o'er her face

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 thy art,

To expand the finest feelings of the heart.[42]


Peter Benes has suggested that "the mechanical accuracy of portrait making seemingly eclipsed the value of the portrait itself."[43] 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 save

The semblance of the virtuous, wise and brave...

...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 true,

And, drawing, doted on the form she drew...[44]

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.[45] 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.[46] 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.[47] 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.[48]

Diametrically opposed to line was the other main component of painterly depiction: color.[49] 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."[50] 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.[51]

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 move.


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.[52]

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 precision.

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 existence."[53]

The politics of representation

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."[54] A brief overview of the competing models of "virtual" and "actual" political representation suggests why representation became such a critical matter for ordinary Americans.[55]

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."[56] 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 similarities.

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.[57]


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.