The golden age of bourgeois portraiture, before the rise of photography

What follows is an assortment of extremely high-resolution portraits of famous figures gleaned from various sources around the web, along with a short text by the French photographer and media critic Gisèle Freund. Almost 175 portraits are included, featuring well-known philosophers, political economists, and revolutionaries such as Thomas Münzer, Stepan Razin, René Descartes, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Ricardo, G.W.F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Toussaint Louverture, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, Baruch Spinoza, Georges Danton, and numerous others who I’m forgetting. Included also, as mentioned, is an extract from Freund’s Photography and Society (1970), a book more than thirty years in the making.

Freund’s close friend and theoretical influence Walter Benjamin commented on an earlier draft of this chapter:

Study of the history of photography began about eight or ten years ago. We have a number of publications, mostly illustrated, on its infancy and its early masters. But only this most recent study has treated the subject in conjunction with the history of painting. Gisèle Freund’s study describes the rise of photography as conditioned by that of the bourgeoisie, successfully illustrating the causal connection by examining the history of the portrait. Starting from the expensive ivory miniature (the portrait technique most widely used under the ancien régime), the author describes the various procedures which contributed to making portrait production quicker and cheaper, and therefore more widespread, around 1780, sixty years before the invention of photography. Her description of the “physiognotrace” as an intermediate form between the portrait miniature and the photograph shows in exemplary fashion how technical factors can be made socially transparent. The author then explains how, with photography, technical development in art converged with the general technical standard of society, bringing the portrait within the means of wider bourgeois strata. She shows that the miniaturists were the first painters to fall victim to photography.

Besides Freund’s masterful study, I would also recommend Aby Warburg’s longish essay on “The Art of Portraiture and the Florentine Bourgeoisie” (1902). Less obviously Marxist than the remarks by Freund and Benjamin in this post — Warburg was a self-professed follower of Burckhardt — but quite complementary to them. Feel free to browse and enlarge any of the images below.


Precursors of the photographic portrait

Gisèle Freund
Photography &

The development of the photographic portrait corresponds to an important phase in the social development of Western Europe: the rise of the middle classes when for the first time, fairly large segments of the population attained political and economic power. To meet their resulting demand for goods, nearly everything had to be produced in greater quantities. The portrait was no exception: By having one’s portrait done an individual of the ascending classes could visually affirm his new social status both to himself and to the world at large. To meet the increased demand for portraits, the art became more and more mechanized. The photographic portrait was the final stage in this trend toward mechanization.

Around 1750 the nascent middle classes began pushing into areas that were formerly the sole domain of the aristocracy. For centuries the privilege of aristocratic circles, the portrait began to yield to democratization. Even before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had already manifested its profound need for self-glorification, a need which provoked the development of new forms and techniques of portraiture. Photography, which entered the public domain in 1839, owes much of its popularity and rapid social development to the continuing vogue of the portrait.

During this period of transition, however, when constant political upheaval and new production methods in all industries were dissolving the remains of the feudal system in France, the rising classes had not found a characteristic means of artistic expression because they had not yet formed a clear self-image. The bourgeoisie still modeled itself after the aristocracy, which continued to set standards of taste even though it was no longer the dominant economic or political force. The rising classes adopted the artistic conventions favored by the nobility, modifying them according to their own needs.

The nobility were difficult clients. They demanded technical perfection. To suit the tastes of the day, the painter tried to avoid all bold colors in favor of more delicate ones. Canvas alone could not satisfy the aristocracy: painters experimented with any material which might better render the rich textures of velvet or silk. The miniature portrait became a favorite of the nobility. It underlined the aristocracy’s delight in personal charm. On powder boxes and pendants one could always carry about these tiny portraits of friends, lovers, or faraway members of the family.

The miniature was also one of the first portrait forms to be coveted by the bourgeoisie for the expression of its new cult of individualism. In dealing with this new clientele, the portrait painter faced a double task: he must imitate the style of the court painters, and bring down his prices. “Portrait painting in France at the time of Louis XV and Louis XVI is characterized by a tendency to falsify, to idealize each face, even that of the shopkeeper, in order to have him resemble the exemplary human type: the prince.”1 Easily adapted to its new clientele, the miniature became one of the most successful minor arts. A miniaturist could support himself by turning out thirty to fifty portraits a year and selling them at moderate prices. But even though it was popular among the middle classes for a time, it still retained its aristocratic elements, and eventually, as the middle classes became more secure, it died out.

By 1850, when the bourgeoisie had become firmly established, the miniature portrait had all but disappeared and photography deprived the last of the miniaturists of their livelihood. In Marseille, for example, there were no more than four or five miniaturists by 1850, only two of whom enjoyed enough of a reputation to be turning out fifty portraits a year. These artists earned just enough to support themselves and their families. Within a few years, there were nearly fifty photographers in town, most of whom devoted themselves to portrait photography and earned a good deal more than the best-known miniaturists. The photographers turned out an average of twelve hundred pictures annually. Sold at 15 gold francs apiece, these brought a yearly total of 18,000 francs and a combined income of nearly one million. Equally dramatic changes took place in all the large cities in France and abroad.2 For one-tenth the price of a painted portrait, the photographer could furnish a likeness which satisfied the taste of the bourgeois as well as the needs of his pocketbook.

Art forms in their origin and evolution parallel contemporary developments in the social structure. The artistic efforts of the era with which we are concerned reflect the democratic ideals of the French Revolution of 1789, which demanded “the rights of man and of the citizen.” The revolutionary citizen who helped take the Bastille and who defended the rights of his class at the National Assembly reflected the same ideals in posing for the physiognotracists of Paris.

The physiognotrace, which represented a major step in the mechanization of the portrait, had an interesting predecessor. During the reign of Louis XIV a new process had been invented for making portraits. By cutting profiles from black, shiny paper, the portraitist could finish his work in no time. Many skilled craftsmen took up this new method and worked as itinerant artists at festive gatherings, from court balls to local fairs. The cut portrait, named silhouette after the finance minister of that time, achieved international popularity.

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 the 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 a short time, the brilliant Controller General had become no more than a shadow of himself.3

The silhouette cutter remained fashionable until the time of Bonaparte. Hawkers selling silhouettes could be found at public balls of the Directory and Consulate. Artists improving on the new portrait technique embellished the cut shapes by retouching and engraving them with needles. An abstract form of representation, the silhouette portrait required no special training from the cutter. For a time, the public flocked to silhouette cutters, pleased with their fast service and modest prices. The invention of the silhouette did not lead to a large-scale industry, but it did encourage the development of another new technique popular in France between 1786 and 1830 — the physiognotrace.

The inventor of the new technique was Gilles-Louis Chrétien. Born in 1754, the son of a court musician at Versailles, Chrétien began in his father’s profession but, hoping to make a better living, he soon chose to become an engraver. His choice may have been a disappointment at first, for the competition was fierce, and the work demanded much time and care. The few portraits which he produced at the start took too long to bring substantial remuneration, and commissions did not come frequently enough to cover expenses. Soon Chrétien began experimenting with faster ways to turn out portraits. In 1786 he successfully devised an apparatus which mechanized the technique of engraving and saved considerable time. The invention combined two methods of portraiture, the silhouette and the engraving, thus creating a new art. He named his device the physiognotrace.

The physiognotrace was based on the well-known principle of the pantograph, an instrument which mechanically reproduces a drawing or diagram. The pantograph is made of rods in the shape of two joined parallelograms. The device moves in a horizontal plane, one parallelogram passing over a design, the other over a blank paper ready to receive the design. With a dry stylus attached to the comer of the first parallelogram, the operator follows the contours of the design. An inked stylus, attached to the second, automatically reproduces the design on the blank page at a scale determined by the distance between each stylus. The physiognotrace was much larger than the pantograph and differed in two other respects: the device was held upright so that the features of a seated model could be traced, and it was fitted with an eyepiece in place of the dry stylus which could pick out the outlines of an object in space. After posing his model, the physiognotracist, seated on a stepladder behind the apparatus, maneuvered it by aiming his eye at the features to be reproduced. The distance from the model to the device, as well as the position of the stylus, determined the relative scale of the final image.4

The artistic ability and the personality of the painter played a great role in the miniature portrait. But these qualities were drastically reduced in the silhouette cutter; his was merely a manual skill. At the most his talent can be seen in artful retouching of the features of a profile. The physiognotracist did not even need that much skill. He had only to draw the contours of the figure which were then transferred and engraved on a metal plaque. Since a single session with the model was sufficient, these portraits were moderately priced. Many physiognotracists sold them in series at even lower rates.

In 1788, Chretien came to Paris, hoping to benefit from his invention. He took on a miniaturist named Quenedey as a partner who, seeing the success of the new venture, soon left to start a rival establishment. Other engravers and miniaturists adopted the new technique because their own professions, closed out by the physiognotracists, no longer provided a means of support. Quenedey, Gonord, and Chrétien were the best known of all. The first two established themselves in the galleries of the Palais-Royal, at that time the center of fashionable Paris. Chrétien opened his studio on the rue Saint-Honoré.

All the celebrities of the capital soon found their way to the physiognotracists. The important personalities of the Revolution, of the Empire, of the Restoration, as well as a great number of unknowns posed in front of the physiognotrace, which copied their profiles with mathematical exactitude. Among Chrétien’s productions one finds the heads of Bailly, Marat, Pétion — all with the tricolor sash — Robespierre, and many others. Quenedey traced the profiles of Madame de Staël, Louis XVIII, Saint-Just, Elisa Bonaparte, and numerous other notables.5

The physiognotracists were good businessmen. Soon they were offering small portraits on wood, ivory, or medallions to be sold at three gold francs apiece. The customer had to buy at least two portraits and make a deposit of half the payment in advance.6 For six gold francs they sold what they called silhouettes à l’anglaise to which they added hairstyling and costume. The pose for these lasted only a minute. Gonord also made cameos and miniature portraits from silhouettes; his “colored silhouettes,” as he called them, sold for twelve gold francs and required a pose of only three minutes.7

Physiognotrace portraits had an increasingly detrimental effect on miniature painting and engraving. At the Salon of 1793, one hundred physiognotrace portraits were exhibited. Just three years later, there were twelve rooms showing fifty physiognotrace portraits each.8

The physiognotracists, especially the three best known, Quenedey, Gonord, and Chrétien, maintained a bitter rivalry. Each accused the others of having stolen his most recent improvements, and they publicized their disputes in the Paris newspapers.9 Hoping to win the favor of the public, each claimed to be the sole inventor of the various technical processes. Realizing that there were many interested amateurs, Gonord began to manufacture sets of equipment as well. All the physiognotracists made a good deal of money from the invention. Eager to have their portraits made, but unwilling to spend much time or money, most people preferred to go to the physiognotracist who, after only a short sitting, could produce a portrait that was very similar to a painted miniature for a low price. Soon, the physiognotrace portrait replaced the miniature.

The same tendencies were evident throughout the French business world. The type and quality of merchandise on hand varied with the number of buyers; merchandise of poorer quality at a lower price replaced more expensive merchandise of superior quality. Luxury, bought cheaply, became the best guarantee of good business.

So far we have dealt with the social and technical side of the evolution from miniature to physiognotrace. But consider the difference between the delicate art of the miniature, where the artist spends days and weeks carefully reproducing a face, and this virtually mechanized process of reproduction. The portraits obtained with the physiognotrace now are only of documentary value: they generally show the same flat, stylized, frozen expression. In the works of the miniaturist, one can always see more than a simple likeness between model and copy. The artist is free to emphasize whatever characteristics he chooses, and thereby can evoke the spirit of the sitter as well. The physiognotracist can reproduce facial contours with mathematical precision, but the resulting portrait lacks expression because it has not been executed with an artist’s intuitive feeling for character.

The physiognotrace can be considered the symbol of a period of transition between the old regime and the new. It is the predecessor of the camera in the technical evolution that has led to the coin-operated portrait machines and Polaroids of today. There will always be a sector in the art world which is more concerned with speed and quantity than with art; the physiognotracist of 1790 is not far removed from the passport photographer of the twentieth century.

Thanks to the physiognotrace, a large portion of the French bourgeoisie gained access to portraits. But the process did not necessarily capture the interest of the majority of the middle class, much less the lower class. It does not, for example, seem to have been practiced in the provinces. Individual labor was still dominant there in the execution of a portrait. It was not until a totally impersonal technique came into use with the advent of photography that the portrait could be completely democratized.

Although the physiognotrace had nothing to do with the technical development of photography, it can be argued that it was its ideological predecessor.


1 Wilhelm Waetzold, Die Kunst des Porträts, Leipzig, 1908, p. 57·
2 Vidal, “Mémoire de la séance du 15 novembre 1868 de la société statistique de Marseille,” Bulletin de la société française de photographie, 1871, pp. 37, 38, 40.
3 Cf. René Hennequin, Edm. Quenedey, portraitiste au physionotrace, Troyes, 1926.
4 Cf. Cromer, “Le secret du physionotrace,” Bulletin de la société archéologique, historique, et artistique, “Le Vieux Papier,” 26th year, October 1925.
5 Cf. Cabinet des estampes de la Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.
6 Cf. Gonard’s advertisement in Journal de Paris, 28 July 1788.
7 Cf. Quenedey’s advertisement in Journal de Paris, 21 July 1788.
8 Cf. Vivarez, Le physionotrace.
9 Cf. Journal de Paris, 2I July 1788.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s