Hawkin’s PhysiognotracePhysiognomy is the study of the relationship between external features of the face and inner moral character. The science of physiognomy was popularized in the late eighteenth century by Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1802). According to Lavater, each human face was a unique imprint, part of a universal “divine alphabet” that could be deciphered by a properly trained physiognomist. Lavater believed that the profile provided the most accurate record of facial features, and emphasized the importance of removing the capricious hand of the artist in order to produce the most accurate record of a face.
The physiognotrace was originally invented in France by Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1783-1784. Chrétien’s device used the technology of the pantograph to trace and record a sitter’s profile. In 1802, second type of physiognotrace was patented by John Isaac Hawkins, an Englishman living in Philadelphia. Hawkins was partnered with the American artist, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), who marketed the machine. Hawkins’ machine differed from Chrétien’s in that it could be operated by the sitter herself, potentially removing the necessity of a trained artist from the production of a portrait. In his autobiography, Peale lauded the physiognotrace’s usefulness as a means for “stamping a true likeness and character.” The physiognotrace, it seemed, could fulfill physiognomy’s promise of a comprehensive fixed code of reference against which human identity could be measured. However, the profiles reproduced here each tell a different story, revealing the fluidity with which data could be used to shape, manipulate, or assert identity.