PAPER PROFILES: AMERICAN PORTRAIT SILHOUETTES
This research began as an internship project in the paper laboratory at the Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. The author's interest in folk art and the lack of information about the materials and techniques used to create silhouettes turned the project into a long-term undertaking. Since the initial internship project, the silhouettes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), the Fogg Art Museum, and the American Antiquarian Society have also been studied. American portrait silhouettes proved to be more than merely charming. The history and diversity of silhouette manufacture are compelling: silhouettes were made freehand and with tracing devices, by amateurs and professional artists alike. The great variety of materials and techniques found during this technical investigation reinforced the general notion that silhouette making was a popular art pursued by all manner of people.
The use of the term “silhouette” is widespread now, though this was not always the case. Early designations included “shade” and “profile.” Lesser-known terms were “miniature cutting,”“black profile,”“scissortype,” “skiagram,” “shadowgraph,” “shadow portrait,” “shadow picture,” “black shade,” or simply “likeness.” Those who cut silhouettes were sometimes called “profilists.” Auguste Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (1789–1861), the famous French silhouettist, referred to himself as the “black shade man,” perhaps ironically, as he detailed the disdain many held for him after they learned of his trade but had yet to see the excellent quality of his work (Edouart 1835, 3).
The name “silhouette” derives from the surname of an 18th-century finance minister to King Louis XV who, in 1757, lasted a mere eight months in his post due to his financial conservatism (Mègroz 1949; Piper 1970). Etienne de Silhouette's stringent monetary tactics proved overwhelmingly unpopular, and, as a result, things that were considered miserly or cheap were labeled à la Silhouette. It is often suggested in the literature that the connection with the art was further cemented by Silhouette's own penchant for cutting profiles as a hobby, though that may simply be folklore.
The artist Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) used the term “silhouette” in 1801 in London (Rosenblum 1957). This usage challenges the common belief that the term was first introduced to England by the silhouettist Edouart, who arrived in England from France in 1829. That Fuseli was Swiss and was educated in continental Europe may account for his earlier use of the term. It is likely that Edouart purposefully popularized the name “silhouette” because he wanted to create the impression that his art was something new; he sought specifically to distance his work from the popular “shade” that was often traced by machine, a method he found crude and meritless (Edouart 1835). Even after the term “silhouette” was introduced, “shade” did not go out of fashion; Queen Victoria called her 1834 album a collection of shades (Mègroz 1949). In fact, Edouart reported in the 1830s that once outside England's urban areas, the name “silhouette” meant little to the people he encountered (Oliver 1977).
The earliest known silhouette was probably a double portrait of the English monarchs William and Mary done by Elizabeth Rhijberg in the late 17th century (Simms 1937; Mègroz 1949; Hickman 1968; Roe 1970). During the 18th and 19th centuries, there were numerous well-known English silhouettists who usually painted their subjects onto a variety of substrates such as ivory, glass, and plaster. These artists include John Field (1771–1841), Isabella Robinson Beetham (ca. 1750–ca. 1825), John Miers (ca. 1758–1821), and Charles Rosenberg (1745–1844).
The best-known silhouettist was undoubtedly French-born Edouart, who worked mainly in England and the United States. The silhouette also flourished in other parts of Europe. In Germany, Philipp Otto Runge (1777–1810) made both painted and cut portrait bust silhouettes and paper cutouts of botanical specimens, animals, scenes, landscapes, and full figures. The French artist Jean Huber (1721–1786) cut portraits and intricate, complex landscapes and tableaux from paper and parchment.
The history of the art is engaging, in part because of the diversity of the silhouettists themselves. Some well-known dabblers included Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hans Christian Andersen, and Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King George III. There are delicately cut silhouettes by trained artists such as William Henry Brown (ca. 1808–1883), William Doyle (1769–1828), and Raphaelle (1774–1825) and Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860). The latter two, sons of the artist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), relied on tracing devices to capture the profiles of their sitters. William James (“Master”) Hubard (1807–1862), an untrained English child prodigy, masterfully cut silhouettes from the age of 13 “without the least aid from Drawing, Machine, or any kind of outline” (Hubard 1825, 21). Finally, countless unnamed ordinary people cut or painted silhouettes of their friends and loved ones. That members of the royalty, scholars, dilettantes, and learned and self-taught artists were all making silhouettes speaks to the wide variety of objects and skill levels encountered when studying this art.