NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
How a curator unlocked the secrets in an arsenic-laced portrait album
It’s 1804 and your wedding day.
But the camera has yet to be invented, so no photographer documents your first kiss, and no photo booth captures your guests in goofy props. How can you commemorate the occasion? Everyone in your hometown of New Orleans seems to be talking about a newcomer, traveling silhouette artist William Bache. You corral your wedding party to his studio, where for the small price of 25 cents he uses a machine called a physiognotrace to capture your silhouette profiles in striking detail, down to wisps of hair. After marveling at the accuracy of each visage, your guests take home their copies, perhaps the first physical image of themselves they’ve ever seen. Later, you and your spouse hang your framed profiles on the wall, facing each other.
Imagined moments like these have come alive for Robyn Asleson, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), who used a Getty grant to research the ledger book of William Bache. This unparalleled volume (c. 1803–12) contains over 1,800 of Bache’s hand-cut paper silhouettes, nearly half of which are identified by name, depicting a vast swath of early 19th-century individuals, from former First Lady Martha Washington and President Thomas Jefferson to everyday folk such as a tavern keeper, comedian, and young bride.
“Silhouettes tell us so much about portraiture before photography, and not just about the wealthiest people in society,” says Asleson. “Silhouettes were inexpensive and portable, worn in lockets, kept in a personal album, and altogether much more intimate than any other portrait. The whole idea of making an image of or for a loved one is fundamental to their very nature.”
Asleson has been immersing herself in the album for years—picturing the lives of sitters, such as traveling actors or young military men (who sat imposing and commanding in their bicorn hats). Bache would also be visited by several members of the same family. A mother and daughter might stop by on a Monday and a few days later send over the father and son. “You can almost imagine the behind-the-scenes conversations that kept people rotating through the doors.”
To learn more about the ledger and identify its many unnamed sitters, Asleson and Getty-funded research assistant Elizabeth Isaacson have drawn on libraries and archives up and down the Eastern Seaboard and delved into the depths of ancestry.com. The result of their labor: the newly launched microsite William Bache’s Silhouettes Album, which offers public access to the album for the very first time and features high-resolution images of the silhouettes, a biography and interactive timeline of Bache’s life, conservation reports, copies of the artist’s many newspaper advertisements promoting his services, and more.
After the Smithsonian acquired the Bache album in 2002, conservation scientists discovered that the entire album was laced with arsenic (the origins of which are still unknown), making it hazardous to the touch and imprudent to share with visitors.
At that time, digital access to museums and archives was in its nascent stages, forcing researchers to rely on analog approaches, such as analyzing newspaper microfilm, historical books, and physical marriage and probate records to try and identify the silhouettes. It was long and often fruitless work. Given the album’s toxicity and arduous research requirements, the Portrait Gallery shelved the project until a more opportune time came along.
In 2021 Asleson learned about Getty’s Paper Project initiative, which awards grants to institutions around the world to bring attention to works on paper and help curators of prints and drawings engage new audiences. She knew that advancements in online access to historical documents now enabled in-depth research that could lead to fresh discoveries about the ledger. Many museums and archives were also still closed due to COVID-19, a reality that pushed many researchers toward digital methods. She applied and received a grant in 2021. “This was a project whose time had come,” she notes.
With Getty support, a Smithsonian paper conservator and museum specialist donned hazmat suits to perform an up-close examination of the poison-laden pages, using the opportunity to document the entire album with high-resolution photography, now available on the microsite.
Rethinking Bache’s Whereabouts
After two decades of waiting, the new discoveries came quickly. Asleson and other scholars had long assumed that, outside of the ledger’s first 100 silhouettes from Northern Virginia, the majority were cut in New Orleans, where Bache was known to have been in 1804. At the time, the city contained a wide array of cultures—French, Spanish, German, Native American, English, and more—so on observing the wide variety of individuals represented in the album, nothing seemed outside the norm.
However, Asleson was curious about an immigration record that indicated Bache had turned up in Philadelphia after traveling there from Havana, when his last known location had been New Orleans. By using “the magic of the Internet” and conducting searches in Spanish rather than English, she learned that the artist had spent only a month in New Orleans and then over a year in Cuba and possibly surrounding islands. Many of the supposed New Orleans silhouettes (approximately 1,000) were from the Caribbean.
“There was back-and-forth movement between the Caribbean, with its sugar plantations, and New Orleans, where sugar was refined, so it makes sense that Bache would go there next,” says Asleson, who marvels at the migratory history revealed by the ledger. “He likely had letters of recommendation from people in New Orleans who had friends or family in Havana, and he used his album as a calling card. Like many people of his time, he was incredibly mobile.”
While in Cuba, Bache went door-to-door, his physiognotrace strapped to his back, crafting silhouettes of whomever he came across, including numerous Afro-Caribbean individuals. While it remains unknown whether these sitters were enslaved, their portraits contribute to the wide diversity reflected in the ledger, something that Bache appears to have been proud to promote.
A New Resource for Genealogy Enthusiasts
The categorization of the Caribbean silhouettes helped Asleson confirm that the approximately 770 others in the album were from Bache’s time in Northern Virginia and New Orleans. This section of the ledger is the most thoroughly labeled with dates and names. Asleson has ambitions that this newly public data will lead people to discover images they never knew existed of their ancestors.
“We can easily guess that there are tens of thousands of people living in the United States today who are connected to this album, and the second they Google that ancestor’s name, it will show up on the Bache microsite,” notes Asleson. “Once the site is made public, we expect more information will come to light and fill gaps in the histories we have compiled so far.”
The album offers an unprecedented opportunity for people of mixed heritage, especially, to access never-before-seen ancestral portraits. Asleson notes that in the 1800s New Orleans was a racially diverse city, and mixed-race relationships were common. However, as some descendants of multi-racial families started “passing” as white, their Black ancestors may have been written out of family histories. The Bache silhouettes might be the only existing portraits of Black ancestors whose images were otherwise destroyed. “As I was learning more and more about this history, I really began to hope that some of the people who are trying to find their heritage today, who realize it might have been deliberately eradicated to protect their ancestors from oppression, might have the chance to discover an image of a great-great-grandfather or grandmother.”
Portraits in any form from over 200 years ago are rare, and the project to digitize the Bache album has resulted in many more being identified, catalogued, and made public. Not only has this work led to a deeper understanding of the social fabric of early American and Caribbean life, but it has also provided visual identification of individuals whose lives might otherwise have been lost to history.
For Bache, his ledger might have been a practical way to market his services and provide what are essentially silhouette “negatives” should a sitter ever want future copies. But for scholars and the public today, it’s a treasure trove, one that will continue to evolve as further information emerges and more and more of its secrets unfold.
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