Digitized silhouette portraits illuminate life in the 19th century

More than two decades ago, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquired a 19th-century album of nearly 2,000 silhouette portraits, including those of two past presidents.

Before exhibiting the cut-out paper portraits, made by a traveling artist named William Bache, the museum needed to create a new, more stable binding for the book. It was at this point that the curators spotted an unusual red residue on the pages and decided to test the book to ensure it was safe to handle. They found that each of the album’s fragile pages was laced with arsenic.

The album sat in a box until earlier this year, when curators used a grant from the Getty Foundation to digitize it. The museum put the collection online last month, allowing anyone to virtually browse through the images and learn more about Bache’s life and work through an interactive timeline.

Robyn Asleson, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, said researchers identified just over 1,000 of the 1,800 portraits. By digitizing the album and making it available online, she hopes that eventually it will be possible to identify every portrait in the collection.

“We realized that this book represents many people who left no other portrait,” said Dr. Asleson. “And so it’s a really interesting way of looking at American history in the early 19th century, and just sort of a cross-section of society.”

At that time photography was still a few years old and having a portrait painted was time-consuming and expensive. Silhouettes were a cheaper, more accessible form of portraiture.

The 1,800 portraits represent a wide range of people, including prominent figures such as Thomas Jefferson and George and Martha Washington, as well as enslaved and formerly enslaved people, said Anne Verplanck, a retired associate professor of American Studies at Penn State University, Harrisburg, and a portrait researcher.

“There is rarely a complete or large list of who they portrayed,” said Dr. planck. “It gives us an unusual detail of life back then.”

Bache, who emigrated to Philadelphia from England in May 1793, was like a “salesman, but for silhouettes,” said Dr. Asleson.

He traveled up and down the east coast from Maine to Virginia selling portraits for money. Eventually he settled in New Orleans, where he created nearly 700 portraits of people from a variety of backgrounds, including French, Spanish, German, British, and Caribbean. He then traveled to Cuba, where he went door to door offering his services. Although Bache had no formal training as an artist, he had a solid clientele and kept his prices low, offering four profiles for 25 cents, or about $5 today.

dr Asleson said Bache used a physiognotrace, a mechanical device he modified and patented in 1803 that could trace the contours of a human face with “mathematical correctness” without coming in contact with it. After completing a portrait, Bache would add additional details, like strands of curly hair, to make it even more accurate.

Bache assigned a number to most customers. He quickly sketched their silhouette and after giving them their copies, he kept the leftover clipping and included it in the album to create a “yearbook” of his work, Dr. Asleson. At the end of the book he kept a ledger in which he wrote down each number and its corresponding name.

dr Asleson said Bache began to render each name neatly, but his writing became more sloppy over time. Many of the names are spelled phonetically, she said, which often resulted in misspellings.

After the museum received the Getty Foundation grant, the museum worked with a Smithsonian photographer, a paper conservator, and a few others to create high-resolution images of the portraits over a period of two weeks. Because of the arsenic, Dr. Asleson said each person would need to wear a face mask, gloves and a protective gown, and that a scientist would be on hand to monitor toxin levels to make sure it was safe.

It’s unclear how the arsenic got on the pages of the book, but it was considered safe in small doses in the 19th century and was often found in food, medicines, and even everyday items like face powder. Back in the UK, an arsenic-based green pigment was used in wallpaper.

Heather MacDonald, senior program officer at the Getty Foundation, said the project fits perfectly with her Paper Project initiative.

“It’s emblematic of what we’re trying to do: support curators who want to take out parts of museum collections that are hidden and give them visibility, and really create frameworks that let people understand their meaning,” she said.

dr Asleson and a research assistant, Elizabeth Isaacson, searched Ancestry.com, poring over digitized newspapers, history books, baptismal records, wills, and marriage certificates to identify individuals whose silhouettes appear in the book. They identified even more after Dr. Asleson had expanded her research into Spanish-language material and discovered that Bache had worked in Cuba.

About half of the people whose portraits are included in the book were identified after the gallery went online. dr Asleson said she heard from a historian in New Orleans who helped curators identify some of the silhouettes — exactly what researchers were hoping for.

Ideally, said Dr. Asleson, could anyone have another silhouette portrait that has been passed down through the generations that could be compared to one of the images in the book. Another hope, she said, is that as more people trace their family history through genetic genealogy, more of Bache’s themes can be identified.

“We just realized it will be of great interest to people who are descendants or have represented relatives in this album who do not have any other image of a great-great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother,” said Dr. Asleson. “I think that would be really exciting and valuable for them.”

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