Physiognomy 101 – Physionomotracing

When the skill of physionomotracing was first invented by the French, its socially defined seat of popularity was set in Paris, France.   Originally referred to as physionomotracing, the term for this skills was changed to the Anglican version physiognotracing once it became the rage of English speaking societies. Philosophy, art, and craftsmanship were the three most revitalizing parts of the common person’s lifestyle during these years in Western Europe’s history.  

During the first years of the practice of this art, France underwent the French Revolution (peak years-1789-1792).  This Revolution was followed by a period of partial recovery known as the First French Republic (1792-1804).   Due to the effectiveness of Napolean Bonaparte’s wartime efforts, France came under his control and he became known as Emporer Napolean Bonaparte, a position he held until about 1814 or 1815.  Following the removal of Bonaparte from his position, The French Restoration period began and France was now under the control of King Louis XVIII for the next 10 years. 

These periods in French history have some similarities with similar events in American history.  The ability to recover from such a state of disarray strengthened the nation as a whole and resulted in the solidarity of its people.  Some aspects of human behavior tends to be universal in nature.  How people endure, survive and live through a war often results in a stronger cultural setting after the war than that which existed prior to the war, the reason the war may have happened in the first place.   

In terms of government, the actions the United States versus France took were very different.  But in terms of the people, the long term outcome of these two events were the same, and resulted in similar behavioral transformations.  Along with nationalism came unique culturally-defined discoveries and progress in science.  Both of these in turn had a greater impact upon an entire nation, followed by world as a whole as the diffusion of these changes took place both internationally and globally.   This is how and why France’s discoveries in medicine became integrated into certain United States cultural settings, and played a major role in some of the important historical events that would happen in American medicine between 1795 and 1815.  Whereas some of these settings in the United States underwent minimal changes due to the the status quo (the government and leaders of the medical field at large), there were also areas which experience a large amount of social pressure and influence from the people.   Once again, the Hudson Valley was the place where these influences of French philosophers and medical practitioners would have the greatest influence.

Joseph Francis Gall, promoter and redefiner of physiognomy and phrenology

It was in the midst of these French Revolution years that Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) began teaching and popularizing his new science of cranioscopy.  Then a physician practicing in Vienna, Austria,  he believed that the shape of the head, in particular the form and placement of its various parts, helped define an individual’s personality and moral and mental beliefs.  This philosophy was not appreciated much by the Roman Catholic church,  the leaders of which opposed the notion that the influences of God could be collected within a single part of the body.  The mind, thought process and soul were things that influenced our everyday living experiences, but seemed impossible to compartmentalize into such a small part of the body.  This was in opposition to the seemingly omniscient process through which God worked, and the potential for these influences to be omnipresent.  The fact that this belief  was so much in opposition to the church’s teachings ultimately led Dr. Gall to leave Austria and ultimately make his way through Germany and finally France.  In France, Napolean’s support of Gall’s theory led to the subsequent popularization of Gall’s cranioscopy theory, and is perhaps a part of the reason why this medical specialty remained a fairly localized profession for the time being, never to reach the United States until its promoters and practitioners were forced to leave France as well.

 The first way Gall’s Cranioscopy came to the United States was not as a science, but as an artform.  Cranioscopy first hit this country in the formn of physiognotracing, a method developed for documenting the observations made by individuals who were sometimes just slightly learned in Gall’s teachings.  To turn this into a profession, one did not have to know the science of cranioscopy as much as the method for documenting these observations.  Some parts of the cranioscopic philosophy were already known.  The background of the philosophy used to define human temperament was already there; to this way of preaching human behavior, cranioscopy only added the information needed to make better sense of the details of an individual’s shape and form. 

Gall’s work influenced the arts when Gilles-Louis Chrétien, a professional musician and music teacher, was inspired by this work and as a consequence invented his first machine to use for physiognotracing around 1784 or 1785.    This invention immediately became popular and resulted in others trying to create similar machines. 


Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) successfully accomplished this sometime around 1790 to 1792.  With this new skill and knowledge set, he immigrated to America and resided in New York City beginning in 1793.   In New York, he used his art skills to subsist in the city setting, teaching himself several news skills in physiognotracing over the next several years thereby perfecting his craft.   By 1796, he was financially successful as an artist.  From 1796 to 1810  he produced some of the most famous portraits of American leaders and began to develop a following.   

One of Saint-Mémin’s most devoted followers was John Hawkins, who produced his own tracing tool and became successful by 1802.  His work was soonafter assocaited with the Peale Museum, resulting in yet another history of this ever-changing profession in American history. 

Saint-Mémin’s work and influences were also followed by those of J. J. Boudier.  When Boudier brought this skill to the United States by way of Philadelphia, (yes, Philadelphia did every now and then actually introduce something before the people of the Hudson Valley), this artist’s skill remained one of a few creations that managed to retain its popularity in the urban settings located fairly close to the District of Columbia.  (For more details on Boudier see   Boudier produced true size portraits for the most part, but on occasion made miniatures. 

In the above interpretation of the introduction of this craft to the United States, the writer claims this skill came in by way of John Hawkins through Philadelphia.  But there were at least two ways physiognotracing was carried out by artisans.  The most popular method involved the tracing of a silhouette, cutting a unique pattern from a black piece of paper for mounting in a picture frame.  The French trained physionomotracers however took this skill one step further, by producing a complete three-dimensional drawing of the features of the face they portrayed.  This was the most popular form of tracing used by the most skilled artisans who were true painters and illustrators.  The United States artisans however took another route with this craft, making it a skill that someone skills more as an engineer than an artisan could engage in.  This took place due to the invention of special multidimensional tracing tools by a number of United States individual with a formidable, although somewhat unprofessional, engineering background.

One of the first major government officials to develop an appreciation for this skills was none other than George Washington.  But it wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson became President that this new form of art actually took off in the country.  By then, this artists’ trade had developed into its own breed of artists’ and self-proclaimed scientists’ specialty

That placement of this new artform enabled the work to be seen by America’s most important artistocrats and politicians passing through the cities.  This increased the possibility that these artists could promote their trade within the capitol area of the United States, and much later in the rapidly growing towns of its more rural settings. 

For the artist, simply documenting these details as precisely as possible became the purpose for this profession. The skills of physiognotracing were not so much those of a well-taught painter or sculpture, as much as they were the skills of a scientist and engineer.  The methods used to develop the physiognotracing tools meant that the tool did as much of the work as the human mind and eyes-hand corrdination skills.  A successful physiognotracer need only the skills needed to guide his/her machine precisely along the route it needed to follow.  The contraption being used to transfer these tracing movements to a piece of paper of  was a skill of the machine, not the person guiding that device.   

The technique and skils of a physiognotracer were more curiosities at first, but quickly became popular enough to make this profession a very popular fad.  This popularization took a route very different from most of the other arts going in and out of popularity at the time.  Music, painting, sculpting, architectural design, and even local storytelling, verse and prose writing all had their avenues they needed to take in order to perpetuate their matching professions.   But these avenues were different than those of the physiognotracer.  To some families and individuals, physiognotracing was a unique skill akin to other skills paid for and engaged in only by the elite.  But this popularization of these talents enabled the artisans to make their living more in the popular culture setting.  A physiognotracer needed to place and space to practice his or her art, but few of the supplies that an artisan requires to produce a painting in a private and fairly large studio setting.   It was just the talents of the physiognotracer, making use of the tracing tool, a pen or pencil, and for some of these businesses a fine pair of scissors, that were required for this artwork, along with a place to set up in order to display the practice of this craft to the general public. 

There are few periods in history when people as a whole, rich and poor, become so enamored with how each of them looked as individuals.  For this reason, many of these onlookers made it a point to pay close attention to personal looks.  This was the for why some people even went so far as to study their looks, good or bad, and why some even tried to preserve their good looks using this art form.  Preserving the looks of someone who is famous does have its reasons.   This preservation on paper means that following death, one’s life and meaning can continue along in the local history stories, kept alive by an impression of how we once looked to the rest of the world during the heroic years of life.  With painting and drawing this was not so much the case .  A true casting of our self is by far more intriguing and thought provoking than a simple artist’s rendering of our facial form or corporeal physique using his or her personal taste of painting style and colors.  Over time, the physiognotracer’s products make for a more permanent image of who and what someone once was.  By framing this drawing or silhouette and mounting it on the wall of a house, this means that someone is always there for others to see, in order to ruminate on and contemplate about in order to better understand just who and what that individual was, even in the afterlife.

So when the skills of physionotracing (as the French spelled it) became popular in France, the rex regis (kingly) nature of this profession popularized by Napolean changed it from a craft for just the artistocracy and bourgoisie to one available for anyone to make use of.  American craftsmen first took on this practice mimicking much of how the French engaged in this art.  But later, as the following of this craft continued to grow, and the skills and knowledge several new inventors in this field in the United States took center stage, artisans from the Hudson Valley began to appear in the local newspapers.   The instruments they developed and used to practice their skill is what then became the next main attraction.   This is when the local families like the Livingstons began making use of these new skills.

Edmé QUENEDEY (1756-1830),  Chrétien’s follower in France.  Portrait au physionotrace d’un gentilhomme, Époque Restauration.  Physionotrace couleur dessiné et gravé par QUENEDEY.  A vue : 5,5 x 5,5 cm – Avec le cadre : 10,5 x 10,5 cm.  10 Rue Croix des Petits Champs à Paris. Miniature, circa 1814-1830.  Source:

A search of the electronic literature today for information on this topic reveals just a few sources dated between 1780 and 1810.  The bulk of the more important references to “physionomotracing”  are two very popular artists directly engaged in and considered experts in this curious craft–its founder Gilles-Louis Chrétien and his follower Edmé Quenedy.   It isn’t until the Americans began to take hold of this form of art that its anglicized spelling of the name “physiognotracing” came to be.  It was the work and efforts of European scholars and practitioners Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin and John Caspar Lavater, and in the United States, J. J. Boudier and John Hawkins of Philadelphia and New York, that the Hudson Valley practice of this skill came to be.


Johann Kaspar Lavater (15 November 1741 – 2 January 1801).  Author of  Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775–1778), based on Giambattista della Porta’s work and Thomas Brown’s Religio Medici. (see


Aside from Gall, there were other individuals in this field further perfectings its value to science and its applications to understanding people.  When John Caspar Lavater got a hold of this philosophy as a science, he transformed it into something that could be used by physicians, not astrologists or palm readers, but real “scientists” so to speak who were interested in the “Truths” about man and his/her behaviors.   This level of interest turned physiognotracing into a scientific trade, a label that the artisans who performed it perhaps favored, since it stipulated that you did not have the possess this life long skill in your family’s heritage to become this type of craftsman.  You had to be an inventor and a statesman, a publicly outspoken individual, with a sense of who people are.  In modern terms, you viewed your profession as that of a psychologist, and people as a whole with the skills of a sociologist.  But since only the psychologist in some respects existed during this time (this term itself invented during the late 18th century and referred to in books), your work ultimately popularized this trade as that of a combined scientist or psychologist, an interpreter or personality and behavior, and an artistically-skills craftsmen in search of some hidden, underlying meaning and reasonming behind your personal looks, shape and form. 

To the limner or physiognotracer of the Hudson Valley in 1800, a physiognotrace was your own personal diary, minus the words.  Every nook and cranny of your face, every bump on your nose and forehead, every ridge of your browline and chin, provided us with insights as to what kind of person you were growing up to be.   The common belief was these features demonstrated your family’s heritage, your personality, your behaviors, your health.   For these reasons, the physiognotrace drawings were made in one of two special ways. 

Guess Who?

The first was in silhouette form, in which the immaculate features of your face were portrayed from a lateral of side view in the illustration that was produced. 

The second was by way of a highly detailed portrait drawn from either of your sides. 

The device that physiognotracers used to document your affect and being was known as a physiognotracer.  It was the invention of the physiognotracer that made them who they were, an artist favored and higher popular due to his or her “gift” of philosophical, psychological, and artistic genius.  Regardless of the method be used, your physiognotrace was a reflection of who you are.  This would ultimately become your most important and revealing portrait of your life, the key to just who you really are, such that if you weren’t careful, this overly revealing key to your temperament and character was there for everyone to see and interpret.