Historians and genealogists digging through 19th century documents and family records will often stumble across images of people rendered in a curious style.
These portraits are neither freehand drawings, nor are they early photographs.
These pictures were made using an old optical drawing aid called a “camera lucida“, patented in the early 1800s, but clearly a development arising from the much older “camera obscura” of the 1500s.
This apparatus essentially involved using a lens to project an image of the sitter directly onto a flat surface where paper or canvas was placed, allowing the artist to trace and shade the subject with no need to be looking up constantly.
This of course allowed the artist to produce quite accurate images at greater speed than by conventional drawing or painting.
Because the camera lucida was also quite portable, artists were not bound to work by appointment in a workshop or studio.
Itinerant artists were thus able to offer relatively true-to-life portraits for a price well below that of oil or watercolor paintings, in the comfort and privacy of the customer’s home.
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