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19th Century Gallery

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Peale's Museum Hollow-Cut Silhouette Portrait of Louisa

19th Century
5 x 3 3/4 in. (12.7 x 9.5 cm)

Edward Williams Clay, American, (1799–1857)

Object Type: MIXED MEDIA
Creation Place: North America
Medium and Support: White paper on black background
Credit Line: Gift of Paul F. Betz, '61
Accession Number: 11-MM-14
Gallery Label:

Silhouette portraits on paper were a very inexpensive means of creating a profile likeness of an individual. With this kind of portrait, the artist would cut a profile of the sitter in paper, then mount it on a dark paper or fabric for contrast.

In response to the popular demand for silhouette portraits during the 18th century, a device called the physiognotrace was invented to mechanize the process for quickly producing multiple profiles at once. Using this device, a person would sit facing sideways while an artist-operator guided a dowel along their profile, causing a pointed instrument to impress an outline onto a twice-folded sheet of white paper to create four exact profiles at once. The artist would often enhance the final portraits with freehand cutting of the hair and eyelashes.

In 1803, when the physiognotrace was introduced at Charles Willson Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, about 8,800 people (80% of visitors) purchased a set of profile portraits, at a cost of 8 cents each. That same year, Raphaelle Peale also travelled to the American South with a physiognotrace, making silhouette portraits more widely available to the general public.

This silhouette portrait bears an embossment from Charles Willson Peale’s Museum.
Current Location: Art Museum : 19 C Gallery : Case

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