“An Occasional Collection of Physiognomical Sketches. . .”

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“An Occasional Collection of Physiognomical Sketches. . .”

2009-10-23 10:31

". . .chiefly North American, and drawn from life; designed to preserve the characteristics features, personally, mentally, or officially [of] remarkable persons, and the endeared memory of private friends or public benefactors with professional notices &c. Philadelphia, 1790, 91, & 92." (p. 396)

The preceding description, according to the October 1964 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, accompanied a significant donation to HSP of silhouettes by artist Joseph Sansom.   The brief article gives a little bit of Sansom’s history—he was born in Philadelphia in 1767, and although he called himself a “merchant,” he was drawn to cultural activities in literature and the arts.  The article does not say how Sansom became a silhouette artist or if it was his primary means of making money; however the examples of his work included in the article are quite wonderful.  In the article they are described as such:

"The Sansom silhouettes are painted in black ink on paper approximately 4 ¾” x 3 ¾” in size. Delicate shading in gray wash is used occasionally to indicate hair or appropriate parts of the costume.  With a single exception, the artist himself has written identification, in ink, under the profile."  (p. 401)

Silhouette of Mary Pleasants. Notice Sansom's added touches, the extra shading and the caption.

Along with Sansom's painted silhouettes, there are also cut-out silhouettes from Peale’s Museum (formerly a natural history museum in Philadelphia that was set up by naturalist and painter Charles Willson Peale).  The cut-out silhouettes are wonderfully detailed and precise.  They were made on a physiognotrace machine that Peale purchased in 1802.  One of Peale’s workers, Moses Wilson, was eventually placed in charge of the machine and, with exacting detail, cut out many of the silhouettes himself.

Silhouette of Mary Runyon.  Paper cut-out backed with black linen.

HSP’s set of silhouettes (Collection V87) from Samson, Peale’s Museum, and other collections includes a wide variety of items.  There are silhouettes of the famous (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson) and the not-as-famous. There are quarter, half, and full profiles.  Some silhouettes have added details and some are mounted and framed.  There are also elaborate paper cuts that are works of art in their own rights.  Most silhouettes are identified and many remain anonymous.

A book of cut silhouettes, all backed with bright blue paper


A selection of framed silhouettes and paper cut designs

Most of the identified silhouettes are listed HSP's graphics card catalog, but we hope to create a finding aid for this collection in the future.


These noted silhouettes by top famous artists, some hand-cut, some painted, are so interesting. As a professional silhouette artist, I find all scissorgraphists and papyrotomists kindred spirits. I have done paper profiles for 40 years. Silhouettes are intriguing, as they pay monument to a moment. Cindi Harwood Rose, master silhouette artist, America, UK, Italy, France.

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