Before selfies, there were shadow pictures. These miniature profile portraits, popularly known as silhouettes, became all the rage in early 19th-century America. Silhouettes were inexpensive, quickly rendered and accurate likenesses that democratized portraiture.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has launched a microsite to open up access to a treasure trove of more than 1,800 cut-paper silhouette busts by American artist William Bache.
The remarkable recuperative project is a byproduct of the digital age but also of necessity—Bache’s portraits are poisoned. When the museum acquired his 1803-1812 ledger book of silhouettes in 2002, paper conservators noticed rusty residue on some silhouettes and soon discovered the album was laced with arsenic. The origin of the arsenic remains unanswered, but in the 19th century the poison was used widely; it could be found in wallpaper, beauty products and even medicine. The toxic volume went into storage.
Fast-forward two decades to when the Getty Foundation’s Paper Project awarded a grant to Robyn Asleson, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, to support the digitization of Bache’s entire ledger book.
“These were poison portraits, and the choices for safe display and study were extremely limited,” says Heather MacDonald, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation who manages the Paper Project grant program. Smithsonian conservator Im Chan and museum specialist Todd Gardner had to wear hazmat suits whenever they handled the volume to digitize the fragile artifact, working page by page to take high-resolution photographs of each silhouette. “By digitizing the Bache album, the National Portrait Gallery converted a challenge into an opportunity, opening up the entire collection for much broader research and appreciation,” MacDonald adds.
Visitors to the online platform can now flip though the portraits as if they were turning the actual pages of the book, zoom in on portraits of interest to see fine details such as a wisp of hair, and learn basic information. Asleson and her team (and it took a village to complete this project) combed newspapers, Ancestry.com and other databases for core details about the figures in the ledger—names, birth and death dates, and other basic biographical information.
The portraits were made with a mechanical device called a physiognotrace. Bache and two partners differentiated their patented physiognotrace from previous models because it did not touch the face and was thus less likely to cause infection. For just 25 cents, a cost equivalent to about $6 today, consumers could purchase “four correct likenesses,” Bache advertised. The machine would trace a sitter’s profile and within minutes provide a lasting record. While not as immediate as a selfie, for the 19th century, this was instant gratification.
The microsite also features Bache’s biography, a timeline of his activities, conservation reports and copies of newspaper advertisements publicizing his services.
The itinerant photographer
On May 28, 1804, an advertisement placed in the Virginia Herald announced: “William Bache, having returned to this place, again solicits the public patronage in his professional line. From the greater experience he has now had in his business he flatters himself his likenesses will be found to possess to a superior degree of excellence, to [any] taken here before, as to ensure the approbation of those Ladies and Gentleman who may honor him with their attention.”
A go-getter, Bache would set up shop in the cities he visited and market his wares. After he exhausted the possibilities in one place, he would move on to the next. Near the end of those stopovers, sometimes for days and others up to a month, Bache would advertise again.
A Salem Gazette notice in September 1808 reads: “W. Bache, returns his grateful acknowledgements to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Salem for the liberal encouragement he has received, & begs leave to inform those who yet intend having PROFILES drawn, that he proposes leaving this place the ensuing week.” In this way, Bache cleverly cultivated the sense of a “going out of business” sale to drum up more business.
Those advertisements helped Smithsonian researchers track Bache’s movements, which took him down the eastern seaboard from Maine to New Orleans.
As he traveled to new venues, Bache would set up temporary studios or strap the portable machine on his back and go door to door. Newly discovered immigration records indicate Bache traveled from New Orleans to Cuba and possibly visited surrounding islands before returning from Havana to Philadelphia more than a year later.
It now appears the sitters who are of African descent, previously thought to have been from New Orleans, are probably Cuban. Their silhouettes are pasted into the ledger book in rows without numbers and they are not indexed, indicating that he was on the move, going door to door in search of clients and didn't have time to keep careful records.
“Cuba appealed to him because there had never been an active silhouette practice there and he saw an untapped market,” Asleson says. She speculates that the industrious Bache may have then traveled to other parts of the Caribbean, because it seems likely he would have depleted the market in Havana and moved on to ply his trade.
A shrewd entrepreneur
Bache’s advertising savvy is also apparent in the pages of the ledger itself. He would present the book to potential sitters as demonstration of his skill. Glued on each page was the cut-out portion of the hollow silhouette he presented to his customers (they received four). The hollow, white silhouettes for clients were mounted on a black surface. Bache would coat the cut-out portion in black ink so it would show up when affixed in the album. On the album’s first page he flaunted important clientele; there one would see the brow, nose and jaw of George and Martha Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Yet he also wanted to show the cross-section of his subjects, and so a tavern keeper, a dance master and a figure he labels “a mulatres[s]” appear on the page as well.
No matter social class or race, sitters carefully chose their attire and hairstyles, a mode of self-fashioning and projection that continues today in our preparations for posed photographs commemorating occasions like high school graduation or a wedding day.
The diversity of clothes, hats and collars one sees in these dignified portraits belies their seeming simplicity. Details such as high and low collars, frills or lace on shirts, and diverse bonnets and cravats are small touches that differentiate each sitter along with their features. Some men styled their hair long and tied it back with a ribbon. Some women wore theirs high upon their head and others in a lower bun.
At times subjects returned to Bache’s studio if they were not satisfied with their appearance. Military men were silhouetted with large bicorn hats and then seemingly realized they looked dwarfed by the hats and came back for a second try.
Teenager Desideria Orso had her silhouette made around 1804. She came back just a few weeks later after she daringly eloped with a military officer, a scandal that reached the governor, who wrote to the secretary of state about the matter. She is listed under her maiden name in the ledger book’s index and a few spaces down logged in by her married name, Desideria Doyle. After the elopement she wore a hat, looking more like a dignified married lady. She was different now, so her portrait should be different. Her silhouette became a commemorative act marking a rite of passage.
Asleson points to an instance where identical twins named Victoria and Felicité Allard sat for Bache. Their silhouettes look just the same, except they are mirroring each other in the ledger book, striking evidence that the photographer was thinking about how his portraits were displayed. The twins visited the studio twice, and thus Bache produced a total of eight silhouettes each for the pair.
Bache also created visual relationships between husbands and wives, who sometimes faced each other on the album’s pages. Captain Gilbert Morris had his portrait made with his wife, Elizabeth Fritz Morris. Perhaps unsatisfied with the result, the captain came in again without her.
While Asleson and the project's research assistant Elizabeth Isaacson did uncover some intriguing stories, they now leave it to visitors to flesh out further details. “What we are hoping is to give raw data to people, scholars and the general public looking for their ancestors, and see what secrets they unlock,” says Asleson. The site offers an easy search tool for perusing the 1,800 silhouettes in the ledger. Museum officials venture that tens of thousands of people living in the U.S. might have connections to the album. “What a gift this could be,” the curator adds. “Someone could find a portrait of a great-great-grandparent whose appearance was unknown to them before.”
Indeed, the shades of someone’s ancestor could be just a click away.
William Bache’s ledger book is now available online on the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery website. Read more about it on the museum's Smithsonian Voices blog.