Poughkeepsie Journal .



What is a physiognotracer?

According to one of the Hudson Valley’s first of these skilled craftsmen, Peter Pallet, a physiognotracer is a “limner” in disguise, someone who can “illuminate your household” by producing a unique piece of artwork that illustrates the inner workings of who you are.  

Drawing Machine

Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, New York City

So who or what were these limners that Pallet was referring to?

During the late 1700s, around  the 1790s to be precise, there were these artisans working in New York City who referred to themselves as “limners.”

The earliest Limner working in New York city, according to local newspaper advertisements, is Lawrence Kilburn, who practiced his skills as a portrait artist for a living beginning around 1754. 

 He began this business with the following card posted in the local newspaper:

Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, just arrived from London with Capt. Miller, hereby acquaints all Gentlemen and Ladies inclined to favour him in having their Pictures drawn, that he don’t doubt of pleasing them in taking a true Likeness, and finishing the Drapery in a proper Manner, as also in the Choice of Attitudes, suitable to each Person’s Age and Sex, and giving agreeable Satisfaction, as he has heretofore done to Gentlemen and Ladies in London. He may at present be apply’d to at his Lodgings, at Mr. Bogart’s, near the New Printing-Office in Beaver-Street.   [The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Post-Boy, May 13, 1754]

This was then followed several months later by the following cards, notes and advertisements:

The New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, September 30, 1754:

Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, from London, who lately advertised in this paper; hereby acquaints all Gentlemen and Ladies, that are mindful to see some of his Performances.

  That he has now several Pieces taken from the Life, finished in his Room; as also sundry other curious Pieces, scarcely to be met with at any other Place in this City, and hopes that Gentlemen and Ladies who have a Taste that Way, will favour him with their Companies; and doubts not but a View of his Performances will engage them to incourage him in this Branch of Business, as at present there is no other in Town who pretends thereto.

N.B. He lodges at Mr. Bogart’s next Door to the late Domini Boel’s near the New-Printing-Office in Beaver-Street.—

The New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, October 13, 1755: 

Lawrence Kilburn, Limner, from London. Intends during the Winter Season, to instruct Gentlemen in the Art of drawing Landskips, Faces, Flowers, &c. on very reasonable Terms, and at such Hours as will be most suitable to those Gentlemen.

  N.B. He lodges at Mr. Schuyler’s, next Door to Mr. Henry Holland’s near Coenties Market.—

The New-York Mercury, September 26, 1757:

Lawrence Kilburnn (sic), Limner from London Continues, as usual, to draw to the life. Ladies and gentlemen that have not as yet seen many of his performances, may now have an opportunity of viewing sundry pieces together, which he has drawn to the entire satisfaction of the persons for whom they were designed. He may be applied to at his lodgings, at the house of Mr. Peter Rosevelt, in Bayard’s-street. He draws also in miniature.—  The New-York Mercury, September 26, 1757.

The New-York Mercury, March 30, 1761: 

Lawrence Kilbrunn [sic].—As my Business calls me up to Albany in about three Weeks Time, I desire therefore all who are indebted to me, to settle with me; and all who hath any Demands on me, to send in their Accounts that they may be settled. And as my Affairs may Keep me in Albany all next Summer, I shall therefore be glad that if any Gentlemen or Ladies who might incline to have their Pictures drawn by me, to apply speedily, at my lodgings in Bayard-Street, at Mr. John Lansing’s.

The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Post-Boy, April 26, 1764:

Lawrence Kilburn.—Sells paints and painter’s materials;……..Portrait Painter’s Colours; Canvas, Hair and Fitch Pencils, Tools, and gilt carv’d Frames for Portraits, Leaf-Gold, and Silver, Ditto, &c.—

The New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, August 22, 1765:

Lawrence Kilburn , Intending to remove into the country, all persons having any demands on him, are desired to bring them in, and receive payment; and all who are indebted to him either on book, note, or bond, to discharge the same, within three months from the above date, to prevent trouble. As at present there is no other Portrait painter in thie city but himself; whoever inclines to have anything done of that kind, are desired to apply in time, as it may be long before they have another opportunity.

N.B. He hath yet some white lead, ground to dispose of.


Lawrence Kilburn’s work was matched by that of Thomas Milworth, and much later by William Birchall Tetley, and William Williams.  

Thomas Milworth, Portrait Painter, Has removed to the House of Mr. Samuel Deall, in Broad-street, opposite to Beaver-street, His first Sett of Pictures are now finished: and as this is the most proper Season for Painting, he desires Gentlemen and Ladies that incline to any Thing done in his way, to be speedy in their application.—

 The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Post-Boy, August 21, 1758.


William Birchall Tetley, from London, Begs leave to acquaint the public, that he has taken a commodious house the Corner of Beaver-Street, and facing General Haldimand’s, where he purposes Painting portraits in oil, or in a miniature for the bracelet, or so small as to be set in a ring. Those Ladies and Gentlemen who please to favour him with their commands, may depend on having them done in the best manner, and with the greatest expedition.—

  The New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, August 8, 1774.

William Birchall Tetley.—Dancing, Taught at Home and Abroad by Wm. Birchall Tetley. Late apprentice to Monsieur Gherarde, of London; He teaches on the usual terms the minuet, cottilions, Allemande, English Country dances; single double, and treble hornpipes, &c &c. as they are now danced at London and Paris, which last place he has lately visited. Those Gentlemen and Ladies who please to favour him with their commands, at the corner of Beaver-street, shall be duly attended. An Evening School at home, three times a week.

 Continues painting Portraits in oyl or miniature, as usual, Teaches Ladies and Gentlemen drawing and painting in crayons or water colours.—

The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, November 14, 1774.

William Williams, Painter, at Rembrandt’s Head, in Batteaux-street, Undertakes painting in general, viz. History, Portraiture, landskip, sign painting, lettering, gilding, and stewing smalt. N.B. He cleans, repairs, and varnishes, any old pictures of value, and teaches the art of drawing. Those ladies or gentlemen who may be pleased to employ him, may depend on care and dispatch.—

  The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, May 8, 1769.

John Durand, Monsieur Du Simitiere, and Abraham Delanoy

John Durand was the first to continue this profession once Lawrence Kilburn removed out of the city.    The same time, a little piece of the French touch to this craft and its influences were provided by Monsieur Du Simitiere, who in turn followed by Abraham Delanoy. 

According to the early artisans, a painting provides us with much more than just a definition or objectification of things around us.  A painting can have a meaning attached to it, that in turn provides us with a sense of the value of what is being portrayed, due to the skills of the craftsman producing this product.  Paintings tell us about the nature and underlying theme or purpose for something, providing us with observations that otherwise might be potentially missed, had it not been perceived and interpreted by the skilled eyes, mind and hands of a skilled craftsman like a physiognomonist.

Another example of such an artisan in New York city devoted his life to this concept, and discusses it extensively in his advertisement about the purpose and meaning of his unique skills:

The Subscriber having from his Infancy endeavoured to qualify himself in the Art of historical Painting, humbly hopes for the Encouragement from the Gentlemen and Ladies of this City and Province, that so elegant and entertaining an Art, has always obtain’d from People of the most improved Minds, and best Taste and Judgement, in all polite Nations in every Age. And tho’ he is sensible, that to excel (in this Branch of Painting, especially) requires a more ample Fund of universal and accurate Knowledge than he can pretend to, in Geometry, Geography, Perspective, Anatomy, Expression of Passions, ancient and modern History, &c. &c. Yet he hopes, from the good Nature and Indulgence of the Gentlemen and Ladies who employ him that his humble Attempts, in which his best Endeavours will not be wanting, will meet with Acceptance, and give Satisfaction; and he proposes to work at as cheap Rates as any Person in America.

To such Gentlemen and Ladies as have thought but little upon this Subject, and might only regard painting as a superfluous Ornament, I would just observe, that History-painting, besides being extremely ornamental, has many important uses. It presents to our View, some of the most interesting Scenes recorded in ancient or modern History; gives us more lively and perfect Ideas of the Things represented, than we could receive from an historical account of them; and frequently recals to our Memory, a long Train of Events, with which those Representations were connected. They shew us a proper Expression of the Passions excited by every Event, and have an Effect, the very same in Kind, (but stronger) than a fine historical Description of the same Passage would have upon a judicious Reader. Men who have distinguished themselves for the good of their Country and Mankind, may be set before our Eyes as Examples, and to give us their silent Lessons, and besides, every judicious Friend and Visitant shares with us in the Advantage and Improvement, and increases its Value to ourselves.  

  John Durand, near the City-Hall, Broad-street.   

The New-York Gazette or the Weekly Post-Boy, April 11, 1768

The skills of this unique form of craftsman requires that the final product be something that is exquisite, accurate but detailed, and in very small form.  Miniaturism was once one of the staple skills of Renaissance artisans. Now it had become one of the most steadfast ways to becoming popular and desired throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries.  We see evidence for these artisans in the earliest homes that were built in the City of New Amsterdam, with households often bearing depictions of the patrons of the families residing there, both in and out of their work and home settings.  Due to the influences of artisans in Flanders, United Netherlands, we find evidence for this ability to capture the person in each and every painting in the form of miniature portraits developed by these painters.  New York City had it own version of this expert in portrait drawing service the town in 1769, Monsieur Du Sumitiere.

Mr. Du Simitiere, Miniature Painter, Intending shortly to leave this City, and it being uncertain whether he will return again, if any Gentlemen or Ladies should incline to employ him, he is to be found at his lodgings, in the House of Mrs. Ferrara, in Maiden Lane. 

The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, July 31, 1769.

In The New-York Journal or the General Advertiser, on May 28, 1767., the following item appears for artisan and portrait maker Abraham Delanoy: 

Abraham Delanoy, jun. just arrived from London: Takes this Opportunity to inform the Public, That he is now settled at Mr. Turner’s, in New-Dutch Church Street, near the Colonel Robinson’s; Where he intends to carry on Portrait Painting; Ladies and Gentlemen that Please to employ him, may depend on all the Justice in his Power, and he doubts not, but he shall give satisfaction.

On January 18, 1768, a similar advertisement appeared in The New-York Mercury:   

Abraham Delanoy, Junior, Takes this Opportunity to inform those Ladies and Gentlemen that have proposed to favour him with their commands, that he intends for the West-Indies in the Spring; it is therefore necessary that they apply speedily; He expresses his Acknowledgement to those that have employed him hitherto. He continues to paint Portraits at his Room in the New Dutch-Church-street, near Col. Robinson’s. His name over the Door.

This was followed by a followed by the following

Likenesses Painted for a reasonable Price, by A. Delanoy, Jun. who has been Taught by the celebrated Mr. Benjamin West, in London. N.B. Is to be spoke with opposite Mr. Dirck Schuyler’s, at his Fathers. (The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, January 7, 1771.)

Eight years later, Lawrence Kilburn passed.

 The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, July 17, 1775:

Lawrence Kilburn.—All persons indebted to the estate of Lawrence Killbrun, late of this city, deceased, are hereby requested to pay the same speedily to Judith Killbrun, or Abm. H. Van Vleck, Merchant, who are to be spoke with at the store of Henry Van Vleck and Son at which place is for sale the remaining assortment of all kinds of painters colours, and different sizes of glass, which will be sold low for cash only. And likewise to be let and entered upon immediately, the pleasant situated and convenient house which the said Killbrun occupied.—


By the time the American Revolutionary war began, painting portraits was a well established trade of New York City.  A number of these artisans came to the city from London, a habit that was about to change due to the development of a sense of patriotism within the city proper on out to the hinterlands.  This meant that artists who were loyalists would no longer be welcome to the region, with very few options as to how to replace them.  There were two major sources of artisans who could have met this need of the local communities–those who were already patriotic citizens of the New York area, and any immigrants or travelers making their way into New York who were supportive of the American Patriotic movement.  Of the latter potential artisans, the French provided New York with a few of its better such artisans.

The Physiognotrace Movement

In an article published in 1804 in The Balance, Columbian Repository, a newspaper printed and distributed out of Hudson, NY, we are informed by one of these new artists that considered himelf a limner.   Whereas two centuries earlier, it was monks who produced such works, and several decades before, a number of artisans travelling the New York from London  in this “modern” period in local American history, it was the French who would ultimately have the most influence on this unique and very showy profession.  By 1800, the role of the limner had pretty much changed for modern society.   

According to Peter Pallet of Hudson, New York, the following was his goal in life as one of the newest kinds of Limners now practicing in the Hudson Valley: 

“I paint full length portraits, bulls, or heads, in oil, water colours or crayons ; miniatures, exquisitely beautiful ; and no physiognotrace in the country can beat me at a profile ; but I have attained to the greatest perfection in transparent painting. This art consists in exhibiting the inside as well as the outside of my subject. In drawing a face in this way, not only the marks visible to vulgar eyes are completely pourtrayed, but the furniture behind the face, is exposed to view, particularly that generally called the brain. In drawing a full-length or bust, the heart is wholly uncovered, with all its dark and light shades—alI its rotten and defective specks, and even all its throbs and vibrations.”


Albrecht Dürer Woodcut 1895-1-22-730 (negative number 38408) - © The British Museum

Unlike the traditional limner of the past, who was an artist, the new limner-physiognotracer was a engineer, and a scientist.  He was a perfectionist when it came to interpreting the body and its various small details.  The new age limner was also a philosopher and an interpreter of human behaviors, all due to his view and impressions of one’s body.  The limner was not the traditional artist.  He or she had a lifetime’s worth of skills and the related skillset needed to accomplish the final piece.  This contrasts with a simplistic decision of the limner published by many of the dictionaries of today.  The modern interpretation of the limner is that he/she was “an itinerant painter of 18th-century America who usually had little formal training . . . a person who describes or depicts in words: an essayist”.  The new limner was so successful because he/she paid particular attention paid to the rich and famous.  But the limner was more than just a self-trained, poorly educated, unskilled, and in later years non-union, artisan.  These earliest limners of the Hudson Valley were our first psychologists who did more than just review the shape of your face or the lines of your hands to say who you were, and who you were to be.  These limners were psychologists first, artisans second, and interpreters of the meaning of whatever family secrest they learned by discussing life in general with their real life model, the individuals who paid for their impressions and did everything possible to better understand their meanings.

So, a more humanist interpretation of this rather dry and tasteless definition would state that a limner’s artistic skills is what allow him or her to define for the next audience of such work the character, skills, and best type of work to fit the implications of the head, body and facial shape.  A judgment of the individual’s character could be made based on the way of interpreting the head and face.  A prediction about a persons fate with regard to career and industry, the law and the gaol, could be made by the use of this unique skill. 

One of the more recent contemporary and culturally-defined descriptions of the limner stated that

“A limner is simply an artist or painter, although the term has come to be used specifically in reference to painters in the North American colonies who worked during the 18th and 19th centuries. Limners were often anonymous, traveling from town to town in search of work, and these artists collectively created a large body of work of varying quality. Examples of work by limners can sometimes be seen in museums, especially in North America, and work also shows up in antique stores and private collections of historical items.”  [http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-limner.htm,  see entire definition from this site in the Appendix]

When Pallet identified himself a limner, he was not just philosophizing about his role in society.  Rather, he was trying to define his skills and the needs for his way of thinking, be these needs personal, familial, financial, or political. 

Still one of the most important underlying features of this specific form of physiognomy is its value as a part of the philosophy of health.  Physiognomy or the shape of the body pretty much defined who you were and your state of health for the time such a deduction was made, etiher by a relative, a comrade, or even a doctor.  Your physiognomy told the medical experts inclined to include this philosophy as a part of their practice whether or not you were prone to gout, ascites, diabetes, the flux, fevers, small pox, a fallen womb, episodes of hysteria, or the worst condition of the psyche–mania.

Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), author of  Essays on physiognomy; for the promotion and the knowledge and the love of mankind …translated into English by Thomas Holcroft . To which are added one hundred physiognomonical rules, a posthumous work by Mr. Lavater, and memoirs of the life of the author. London: H. D. Symons and J. Walker, 1804.

Over the next decade or two, the skills of the physiognotracer would influence both medicine and the military.  As an example of an early psychologist, trying to interpret his model’s figure and form in every way possible, the physiognotracer became an expert in human behaviors.  These skills, as they were further taught and promoted by doctors, local aristocrats, and members of the military, became of much greater assistance to the military in the years and decades ahead.  Physiognotracing would not only be integrated with the skills of an artisan, it was also provided the building blocks needed to produce a new form of study of human physiognomy known as phrenology.  The next series of pages review different aspects of this local history. 


Guess Who






The physiognograph or physiognotrace was a device that artists used to transfer their hand movements used for copying to the other end of a device that penned that movement onto a piece of paper.  The purpose of this new invention was to make portraits of people, and for a while it was used mostly to produce those silhouette images we occasionally see use to mimic somebody instead of a true picture.  But during the late 18th century and early 19th century, the products of a tool used to physiognotrace (or physionotrace as the French originally spelled it) a person were taken in the light of the rapid transitions French society had generated in American as the French Revolution went through its social impacts and the scholars of the form bourgiosie reducing in France made their way to the United States.





The Limomachia.  Developed by John Casper Lavatar, a special chair was designed to keep the client in a rigid position, enabling a silhouette to be traced of the candle-shadow.  Lavatar beliefs that this could be used to define the character and mental attitude of someone.  Thus the old adage for this “You look like your father (or mother), you act like your father (or mother)!”   Lavater felt that your behaviors could be predicted by observing your facial features in your silhouette portrait.



“A limner is simply an artist or painter, although the term has come to be used specifically in reference to painters in the North American colonies who worked during the 18th and 19th centuries. Limners were often anonymous, traveling from town to town in search of work, and these artists collectively created a large body of work of varying quality. Examples of work by limners can sometimes be seen in museums, especially in North America, and work also shows up in antique stores and private collections of historical items.”

The word “limner” is derived from “illustrator,” and originally it was used to refer to the people who illuminated manuscripts of books with rich colors and detailed paintings. The term was also used more generically to discuss painters in general, and over time “limner” was adopted to describe the largely uneducated painters who populated the American colonies.

A limner essentially taught himself the fundamentals of painting, and rarely turned down commissions for work. The art of limners adorns clock faces, fire screens, indoor murals, and signs, for example. Limners also of course produced paintings on canvas, often portraits of the prominent people in a town or city. Such portraits typically included a background which was meant to imply wealth and erudition, and they were hung in offices, boardrooms, and so forth.

The work of 18th and 19th century American limners has several distinctive characteristics which make it easy to recognize. The first is a flattened look with imperfect perspective. Figures tend to be painted in frontal positions, and they often have ornate garments which are clearly inspired by the work of prominent European painters. Indeed, many limners closely copied more famous prints and works of art, demonstrating various degrees of proficiency.

Many of the people in portraits by limners look awkward and stiff, and despite their dreams of grandeur, some are not recognizable today. Truly prominent people would have had access to trained and skilled portrait painters. Some limners actually did go on to become prominent and respected painters, developing superb and notable self-taught skills

In the older sense of limner as a trained and skilled painter or illustrator, limners were often famed for their delicate and detailed miniature portraits. They also “limned” famous manuscripts and books, adding lush colored details and accents in gold leaf and other precious materials. Such limners worked from around 15th century to the early 18th century, and their incredibly detailed and rich work is on display in many museums around the world.”

 [http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-limner.htm, accessed 5-24-2011]


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