Silhouette L. from Lavater Lavater, Johann Caspar  (Swiss, 1741-1801)

This silhouette, all be it a manual process, is considered the earliest portrait process assisted by the action of light – an early precursor to photomechanical reproduction.

Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801), the famous physiognomist, believed that the silhouette, although the least finished form of portraiture, was the most truthful and revealing of character. Lavater used about 150 silhouettes among the illustrations in his monumental work
Physiognomische Fragmente (Zurich, 1775 -76). Lavater is credited with developing the silhouette machine. Lavater’s work created an enormous interest in both physiognomy (a field of study by which one could judge character from facial characteristics) and the silhouette, and for a time there was an absolute craze for these portraits which required no knowledge of drawing. Anyone could make silhouettes by the shadow-tracing method, and people collected and exchanged them with friends as they did carte-devisite photographs eighty years later. While the silhouette was at its zenith, a still better process for executing mechanically and rapidly small and cheap portraits was introduced in France—the physionotrace.

This is Lavater’s own Silhouette which appeared in the 1810 translated volume of Essays on physiognomy; designed to promote the knowledge and the love of mankind.


Marien, Mary W. Photography: A Cultural History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: SunSoft Press, 2002. p. 5. at 7:00

Gernsheim, Helmut, and Alison Gernsheim. L.j.m. Daguerre: The History of the Diorama and the Daguerreotype. New York: Dover Publications, 1968. p. 115