From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Pierre Gaveaux, 1821, by Edme Quenedey (1756–1830) after a physionotrace

A physiognotrace or physionotrace is an instrument designed to trace a person's physiognomy, most specifically the profile in the form of a silhouette: it originated in France where it is known as the physionotrace.[1] The instrument is a descendant of the pantograph, a drawing device that magnifies figures.


Quenedey's drawing of the tool

A Frenchman named Gilles-Louis Chrétien invented the "physionotrace" in 1783–84 to aid in the production of silhouette portraits which became popular during the reign of Louis XVI. Chrétien's partner, Edme Quenedey, made a drawing of the instrument in 1788, which now sits in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.[2] Chrétien's device used the mechanics of the pantograph to transmit the tracing (via an eyepiece) of the subject's profile silhouette to an engraving needle. Thus it enabled the production of multiple portrait copies.[3]

In 1802, John Isaac Hawkins, who was born in England in 1772 and who lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, patented the second official physiognotrace, and partnered with Charles Willson Peale to market it to prospective buyers. John Hawkins's machine differed from Chrétien's in that it traced around the actual face with a small bar connected to a pantograph that reduced the silhouette to less than 2 inches. At that time, many versions of these instruments were being used all over the East Coast in the United States, some of which predated Hawkins's, and which were capable of quickly making machine-made profiles.[4]

By 1802, in response to the popularity of silhouettes, which were invented in the late eighteenth century, Peale introduced the British inventor John Hawkins’s (1772–1855) physiognotrace at his museum in Philadelphia. While the operator traced the sitter’s head, the mechanism impressed the image onto a piece of paper that was often folded to produce multiple portraits. The operator then cut away the center of the paper, leaving a “hollow cut” image. These silhouettes, or profiles as they were also called, could be kept loose, framed, or compiled in albums; a black or blue piece of paper or fabric placed behind the image provided contrast.[5]

Peale sent the watercolor sketch of this instrument to Thomas Jefferson,[6] along with a detailed explanation. The drawing now sits with the Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress. In April 1805, Mr. Peale wrote his friend, Dr. William Thornton to request a certified copy of a patent of a physiognotrace that was issued to John J. Hawkins. Peale, who had an interest in the instrument and who kept the original in his museum, "needed the certified copy to bring suit against a person who was making the device without authority. John J. Hawkins had been in England, where he sold patent rights to the polygraph (duplicating device) and drawing machine for 1,600 guineas. Mr. Peale also wrote to Dr. Thornton in May 1805 to record an assignment of the Hawkins invention to Mr. Peale for the City of Philadelphia."[7] James Sharples, an itinerant British portrait artist, who also lived for a time in Philadelphia, used a physiognotrace to draw profiles of such famous subjects as George Washington and Dolly and James Madison.


  1. ^ Freund, Gisèle (1974), Photographie et société, Éditions du Seuil, pp. 8–18, retrieved 18 April 2016
  2. ^ "The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America".
  3. ^ Cromer "Le secret du physoniotrace" Bulletin de la société archéologique, historique et artistique, "Le Vieux Papier", 26th year, October 1925
  4. ^[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ "Distinguishing Real from Fake Peale's Museum Silhouette by user from Antiques & Fine Art magazine". Archived from the original on 2012-02-09. Retrieved 2009-08-27.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-06-21. Retrieved 2009-08-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "History of the United States Patent Office, Chapter 8". Retrieved 2017-08-18.

External links[edit]