OF PHOTOGRAPHY: THE PHYSIONOTRACE PORTRAITS
OBSCURA - CAMERA LUCIDA -
SILHOUETTE - PHYSIONOTRACE -
Drawing aids in art, forerunners of photography or other useful
utensils comparable to brushes
In the 19th.
Century, photography was discovered in a search for finding a
method to produce much faster,
cheaper the images of nature.
First this was aplied to portraiture & landscape images.
Artist's designed drawing instruments to serve as an aid in
the production of their work. Within this context, photography
was the "ultimate" result of this
search & challenge.
Before the dawn of photography and the use of the, since
long in existence, Camera Obsura
to produce images by nature other drawing instruments were
invented and used.
The Silhouette Chair, the
Camera Lucida, and the
Physionotrace apparatus are
perhaps the most intriguing examples of this history.
On this page, I hope to show the various images produced with
these Precursors of photography.
Left: Physionotrace by
Smith collection, London.
within the precursors of photography, I draw my attention
especially to my favourite, the Physionotrace,
invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien
Similar to a silhouette, the physionotrace always shows
a profile portrait.
In case of the silhouette
by A. de Silhouette*)
the profiles are entirely black paper cut-outs.
The Physionotrace portrait however shows every detail
of the sitter, including his or her clothing. The physionotrace
apparatus, a mechanical wooden instrument with a viewfinder,
worked as a pantograph devise.
This invention of Chrétien enabled the artist to quicly
draw a portait of the sitter for a reasonable price.
The apparatus reduced all the drawing skills of the artist
to a smaller size and engraved it in copper. By this method,
this pantograph drawing aid produced small copperplates
(master negativ) that could
be printed again and again.
The original, and rare, plates can be seen as a forerunner
of the photographic negative since the basic purpose was
the same. A cheaper method to produce a quantity of images
in a short time. Of course, here ends any further comparison
with photography. But this is a
Until today, no original physionotrace apparatus is
been traced. (The CNAM apparatus
in Paris disappeared) Only one drawing, depicting
the apparatus, is known in the print collection of the
Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. (See
image above right) The physionotrace copper prints,
made in a short time of history, are rare collectables
Allthough the physionotrace technique was able to produce faster
and cheaper portraits of the sitter, they still were a novelty
the aristocracy. Very often these portraits depicts well known
sitters with a high status in society. The finding of 5
physionotrace portraits illustrates this. For this reason, this
type of portraits is not easy to find because very often still
kept in family archives.
Many of the physionotrace images in collections are produced by
the inventor Gilles-Louis Chrétien
(1754 - 1811). Portraits made by
- 1830), his associate since 1788, are also found. Other
names seen on physionotrace images are Fouquet, Fournier and
Due to their typical appeareance, physionotrace portraits can
easily be identified. Very often the identity of the maker is
engraved in the copperplate, beneath the portrait, e.g.
Dess. aux Physionotrace et
Quenedey, Rue Neuve de Petits Champs no. 15 à Paris, 1808
(see most examples
below) Click here for
further reading on this
Portraits au Physionotrace
Bouligni (à 29 ans)
Le Comte de
Yoldi (à 35 ans)
Veerle Van Goethem
& du St.
Veerle Van Goethem
Dess. aux Physionotrace
et gravé par Quenedey, Rue Neuve de Petits Champs no. 15 à Paris, 1808
Veerle Van Goethem
The Idea of
portrait making with the aid of tracing a shadow is obvious
and because of this very old. A good 17th.
Century example is seen in Joachim von Sandrart copper
On the left we see a putti holding a lantern to cast the
shadow of a man on the wall. This
indoor scene is performed by
The other engraving (mouve mouse over)
is depicting the same idea of shadow tracing. In this
outdoor scene, the
sun is used as an omnipresent
light source to trace the silhouettes of the men.
The subsequent 3 Physionotrace copper prints are shown here
with the kind permission of Lester Smith. The physionotrace
is perhaps the ultimate result of silhouette portraiture.
good reference source on the Physionotrace
can be read in:
LA PHOTOGRAPHIE, LE PHYSIONOTRACE"
by Henri Koilski & Serge Negre
(Musée Arthur Batut, cahier n°1) 1989
de la photographie dans l'art du portrait
à bon marché" by Lefebvre-Ducrocq.
de l'époque de la Révolution et de
l' Empire. E. Quenedy, portraitiste
au Physionotrace (1756 - 1830) Sa
vie et son œuvre" René
Hennequin, 1926 - 1927
collection Lester Smith
seen in all physionotrace portraits on this pages,
mostly the copper engravings were not improved by
However, beautiful hand colored physionotrace
images do exist.
These ameliorated portraits are more rare compared
to the non-manipulated images.
The quality of the coloring in physionotrace
images needs to be very high and performed wit a
lot of skill to avoid the loss of detail which is
one of the main characteristics of this late 18th.
Century miniature portrait technique.
Due to the tradition of miniature portrait
painting these skills were still available in the
physionotrace era and therefore, the coloring
found on these images is mostly of good quality.
Nevertheless, this coloring will always hide some
of the details seen in most physionotrace prints.
The earliest portraits partly lack the high detail
of the later examples.
There certainly is an evolution to more rich and
A skilled physionotrace engraver produced images
that are very close to nature and photographic
course, not only the skill of the engraver is
responsible for these highly detailed
physionotraces. Due to the pantograph technique,
which reduce the original drawing, the copper
"negative" or copper plate is a reduced copy of
Other drawing aids connot profit of this
advantage because because the artist needs to
trace the "projected" image of the
Camera Obscura or
the Camera Lucida.
An in depht article about the possible use of
optics in art can be found
Or read some FAQ on the web site's of
On the right, we see a man at work drawing with
the aid of a Camera Lucida, an optical
instrument that is very cumbersome to work with
withouth the necessery skills and expierience.
(Cover of a
late Camera Lucida manual.)
The Camera Obscura
has a much longer history, different variations
The fact that artists in the 18th. &
19th. Century used several optical
devices as an aid in for their creative work
No matter we see images of the
sun projected onto the ground
in the woods, or we hold a vintage
photo print in our hands, watching
a movie in the cinema, all three
were produced by a Camera Obscura.
The latter was not invented
but discovered in nature through
observation of the optical phenomenon.
the answer on the question
if artists' were using
optical devices as far
as early 13th.
Century still remains
the latter is true or
not simply needs evidence.
The theory in recent
this early use is very
but risky because not
based on evidence but
No matter the future
answer on the above
question will be positive
or negative; the skills
of the artist is what
makes a work of art,
with or without the
use op optics.
A more important gaol
to achieve is to free
all art works that uses
any kind of aid, optical
or not, from a negative
connotation. A brush
is an aid too!
A Camera Obscura, a
lens, a mirror, etc.
are nothing more than
a useful aid, similar
to a brush, in the production
of an artwork. On
the left we see a detail
of a Camera Lucida as
used by Fox Talbot.
The Camera Obscura
is a much older devise
(and natural phenomenon)
and already described
in Islamic science
during the middle
ages. However, in
the latter case, it
was not used at all
in art, according
a detailed e-mail.
Right: Camera Obscura
produced by E. Leybold's
nachfolger, Cöln a/Rh.
is an important
item since the latter
is the basic concept
behind these two.
The Camera is capturing
an outside scene and
brings it inside his
darkened room. The
Magic Lantern illuminates
an object inside and
projected it outside
in a dark room.
Birth of Photography
the "Price One Penny" the
general public could read about this
new art oficially born in 1839
The Saturday Magazine
435, 13th April 1839)
describes the dawn of photography
in his article:
the commencement of the present year,
considerable surprise was manifested
by the public at the announcement
of the startling discovery of a mode,
by which natural objects were made
to delineate themselves, without the
aid of the artist's pencil. The beautiful
miniature landscape, which the camera
obscura produces, was made to paint
itself upon paper ; and that
with a fidelity and minuteness so
extraordinary, that a microscopic
examination was necessary to bring
out all its details. A distant building
represented in one of these landscapes
was depicted even to the number of
bricks in the façade, and a
pane of one of its windows being broken
and mended with paper, was faithfully
represented and detected by the microscope"
the two pioneer photographical processes,
the daguerreotype, as seen left, and
the calotype, as described above,
were very differnent processes.
However the historical importances
and invention seen in both was the
use of the camera
obscura as an instrument to
drawn images of nature with the aid
of light without the use of the artist's
a lot of photo histories, M. de Silhouette
is introduced as the inventor of the
"silhouette" technique. A
Finish reader brought to the following
passage by Gisele Freund to my attention.
According to Gisele
Freund, writer of Photography &
Society (Photographie et Société,
1974), this is wrong. Freund writes:
"Monsieur de Silhouette was not,
as has been claimed, the creator of
the cutouts that put his name into common
usage. The actual inventor is unknown.
The word silhouette, which includes
by extension all figures seen in shadowed
profile, appeared in the middle of eighteenth
century. Its etymology is quite unusual.
Named Controller General in 1750 when
France was heading toward bankruptcy,
M de Silhouette levied, with some difficulty,
certain public taxes to boost government
revenues. For a time he was considered
the savior of the French State, but
the deficit was too great and he was
forced to delay certain payments while
suspending others entirely. His popularity
plummeted, and the public became spiteful.
A new style of clothing appeared: narrow
coats without pleats and breeches without
pockets. Without money to store in them,
what good were pockets?
These clothes were said to be styled
à la Silhouette, and to this
day, anything as insubstantial as a
shadow is called a silhouette; in short
time, the brilliant Controller General
had become no more than a shadow of
1980; p. 12-13. Photography & Society.
London and Bedford:
USA. The topic is indexed to Cf. René
Hennequin, Edm. Quenedey, portraitiste
au physionotrace, Troyes, 1926