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Physiognotrace: The physiognotrace is an instrument designed to trace a person's physiognomy, most specifically the profile in the form of a silhouette: it is also known as physionotrace in French. The instrument is a descendant of the pantograph, a drawing device that magnifies figures.
Pierre Gaveaux, 1821, After a physionotrace by Edme Quenedey (1756-1830)


A Frenchman named Gilles-Louis Chrétien invented the "physionotrace" in 1783-84. Chrétien's partner, Edme Quenedey, made a drawing of the instrument in 1788, which now sits in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Francemarker.

In 1802, John Isaac Hawkins, who was born in England in 1772 and who lived in Philadelphiamarker, 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.

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.

Peale sent the watercolor sketch of this instrument to Thomas Jefferson, 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 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." 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. Bellion, W. The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America
  2. Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes
  3. Verplank, Anne, Distinguishing Real from Fake: Peale's Museum Silhouettes
  4. Physiognotrace
  5. History of the United States Patent Office

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