Way before influencers used front or back-facing cameras to capture their likenesses, 19th-century celebrities sat for silhouettes made by a semi-automated instrument called a physiognotrace. The devices produced inexpensive, exact replicas of a person much faster than an artist could create a painting or sculpture. Selling these portraits proved to be a lucrative career for artist William Bache, who traveled up and down the United States and throughout the Caribbean from 1803 to 1812. Now entirely digitized through a partnership between the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Getty Institute, Bache’s silhouette album, featuring nearly 2000 profiles, has been uploaded to a microsite for researchers and photography enthusiasts to peruse.
Although the National Portrait Gallery featured the book in the 2018 exhibition Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, historians and researchers had zero access to portraits in the album due to the dangers of exposure to the arsenic present in the volume’s pages. The newly launched platform contains high-resolution images of the profiles, Bache’s biography and timeline, conservation reports, and other digital materials. Curator of Prints and Drawings Robyn Asleson has also confirmed the identity of hundreds of sitters portrayed by Bache.
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“Someone may find the image of a great-great-grandparent or other ancestor whose likeness they have never seen before,” Asleson told Hyperallergic.
Users can flip through portraits, zoom in on specific individual profiles, and find names, life dates, and other information on the site. The album showcases the portraits of notable figures like Thomas Jefferson, Martha Washington, and former Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, as well as comedians, actors, and everyday people, including individuals of African descent. Asleson’s team was surprised to discover that Bache traveled as far as the Caribbean, potentially Cuba. The new information may shed light on social environments in New Orleans or transatlantic dealings between Louisiana and Cuba.
Primary documents showing Bache’s business and marketing tactics are also available and reveal the ingenuity of an artist making a living for himself before a defined art industry emerged in the United States. Bache patented his novel device and method for portraiture at the turn of the 19th century with partners Isaac Todd and Augustus Day. Unlike his competitor’s device, Bache’s physiognotrace produced silhouettes without touching the face, a distinguishing feature. Therefore the device did not spread infectious diseases, such as smallpox, typhoid, and measles.
The physiognotrace was popular up until the invention of the photographic camera in 1816 because it democratized the portrait and could create scientifically exact images. Asleson notes that some researchers used silhouettes to bolster the racist pseudoscience of physiognomy, which sought to link a person’s physical characteristics (such as face color, nose shape, or hair texture) to emotional or intellectual capacity — a theory 19th-century scientists used to justify white racial superiority.
Yet, mainly because the profiles were so inexpensive — newspaper ads digitized on the microsite show four portraits costing 25 cents (approximately $5 today) — a greater range of individuals and families in different classes could afford to buy these images as keepsakes to remember family members and loved ones.
“The portraits in this album provide images of a much broader cross-section of society, and we were excited to share them with the public,” Asleson said.