Object Image

Portable physiognotrace used by Raphaelle Peale

A physiognotrace allowed artists to trace the outline of a sitter’s head and simultaneously record a small profile on a piece of paper. The silhouette head was then cut from the paper. The style of this portable case suggests a piece of furniture rather than a tool, perhaps to impress sitters. Raphaelle Peale traveled throughout America with this object, using it to cut silhouettes of everyone from Thomas Jefferson to ordinary citizens.

Physiognomy involves reading a person’s character through his or her facial features, and while modern science disputes this notion, many people in the 1800s believed that a head’s outline conveyed character and offered a means of classification.

Wood (mahogan...

early 19th Century
Physiognotrace: wood (mahogany), varnish, glass, ivory, iron/steel, brass, stainless steel, paper, adhesive, ink associated materials: paper, stainless steel, copper, lead, wood, cotton, synthetic brush bristles, leather, plastic glass, gilt, graphite
32.5 x 38.7cm
Image and text © National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2023

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