21 September 2010

The portrait machine before photography: the physionotrace

Le Comte de Yoldi
collection Veerle Van Goethem 

Invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1784, the Physionotrace allowed the rapid production of a profile portrait by an artist. The result was engraved on copper and the portrait multiplied by printing. The physionotrace  was a mechanical apparatus that worked as a large pantograph. It represented one step in the process of democratization of portraiture: from the miniature, the silhouette and the camera lucida drawing to photography. By facilitating the reproduction of a likeness in  a relatively short time, and therefore reducing the artist's effort, and, as a consequence, the price of portraits, it can be considered as a precursor of the photographic portrait as a mass phenomenon. Indeed, portraiture in the 19th century, starting with the Daguerreotype and the Calotype, was one of the main elements in the diffusion and popularization of photography, both as a new artistic and documentary form, and also as a commercial enterprise.


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