JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 203 to 223)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 2002, Volume 41, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 203 to 223)

PAPER PROFILES: AMERICAN PORTRAIT SILHOUETTES

PENLEY KNIPE



3 HISTORY OF SILHOUETTES

There are many hypotheses about the historical precedents of silhouettes. The profile images from ancient Egypt on tomb walls and in Greece on vases are oft-cited silhouette sources. In the 18th century, Neoclassicism revived interest in this simplified form of portraiture. In reaction to the excesses of the Baroque and Rococo styles and spurred on by the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1748, the antique sensibilities were a favorite during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The use of profiles on antique coins and medals may also be a source. These antique influences can also be seen in the porcelain of Josiah Wedgwood, in Empire-style dresses, in the architecture of John Nash and Robert Smirke, and in paintings and drawings by artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867).

Fig. 4. Example of a conversation piece silhouette. Auguste Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart, William Buckland and His Wife and Son Frank, Examining Buckland's Natural History Collection, ca. 1828, cutout full-figure silhouettes from matte, black-coated, white wove paper mounted to beige wove paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mary L. Smith Fund, 1966. 964. Photograph taken by the author while the Claire W. and Richard P. Morse Fellow in Paper Conservation

The aesthetic connection between things antique and silhouettes is further solidified by an 1815–16 silhouette-cutting instruction book. The samples for copying found in Barbara Anne Townshend's Introduction to the Art of Cutting Groups of Figures, Flowers, Birds, &c. in Black Paper very clearly draw from the antique (fig. 5). The figures are clothed in Empire-style dress, are posed in positions suggesting classical sculpture, and have the accoutrements of “ancient” life such as vases, decorative columns, and empire furniture.

The following Greek myth recounted by Pliny the Elder also serves as a silhouette source (Bolton 1914; Hickman 1968; Piper 1970). It is the story of the Corinthian maid Dibutade who outlined her departing lover's shadow on the wall to preserve his image while he was away. The maid's father Butade filled the outline with clay and fired it with the rest of his pots in order to comfort his lonely daughter. Pliny used the story to illustrate the origins of clay modeling. By the 18th century, the myth became a popular explanation of the origins of painting and was depicted by such artists as Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Joseph-Benoît Suvée (1743–1807), and Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson (1767–1824).

Fig. 5. Example of design from 1815–16 that one could follow to cut from black paper. Barbara Anne Townshend, Introduction to the Art of Cutting Groups of Figures, Flowers, Birds, &c. in Black Paper (London: Printed for Edward Orme, 1815–16), 6. Winterthur Museum and Library

It is worth noting that the story of Dibutade was especially popular from the 1770s through the 1820s, coinciding directly with the height of silhouette interest. Reducing features to elegant antique outlines and simple black shapes was very stylish. In an 1801 lecture at the Royal Academy in London, the artist Henry Fuseli made clear the connection between silhouettes and the Greek tale:

If ever legend deserved our belief, the amorous tale of the Corinthian maid, who traced the shade of her departing lover by the secret lamp, appeals to our sympathy to grant it. …The first essays of the art [painting] were skiagrams, simple outlines of a shade, similar to those which have been introduced to vulgar use by the students and parasites of Physiognomy, under the name Silhouettes (quoted in Rosenblum 1957, 287).

Fuseli's words point to the use of silhouettes in the “science” of physiognomy. Physiognomy was first discussed in Johann Caspar Lavater's 1770s treatise, Essay on Physiognomy, for the Promotion of the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind. Lavater, a Zurich evangelical minister, expounded the belief that moral and spiritual character could be studied in the human face, and the most accurate vehicle for examining the countenance was the silhouette. He even developed a special chair to hold sitters still while their shadows were traced. The first American edition of Lavater's treatise was published in Boston in 1794. Six years later a celebrated abridgment, The Pocket Lavater, was printed. These publications helped spread Lavater's theories and, in turn, further popularized the silhouette.

Silhouettes were embraced by the public for reasons beyond the physiognomy fad. This form of portraiture held significant advantages over others, the foremost being expense. As opposed to portrait miniatures made with precious pigments on ivory or vellum and housed in expensive cases, shades were often simply snipped from paper for a few pennies. The speed with which one could get a portrait taken was also a great advantage. Only one sitting was required, as compared to numerous sittings needed for more complex forms of portraiture, and often the sitting was brief. The quickness of the individual artist was occasionally featured in their advertisements. For example, Sam Weller claimed that with his “profeel machine” he could finish a portrait and frame it, complete with a hanging hook, within two minutes and fifteen seconds (Carrick 1928, 11). Even the meticulous English artist John Miers, whose silhouettes were delicately painted on plaster or ivory, required just a three-minute sitting, according to his label on the back of a Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, silhouette (1939.178). These advantages were quickly eclipsed by the advent of photography, which, not long after the 1839 public announcement of its invention, dealt a deadly blow to the silhouette industry.

Silhouettes were also readily available. In England, the artists congregated in London and Bath and other fashionable places frequented by “society.” Like their English counterparts, the American silhouettists, both the learned and self-trained, gathered in summer resort areas such as Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Newport, Rhode Island, hoping to gain referrals from their initial clients. Many itinerant silhouettists practiced other trades. Some were tinkers, peddlers, or sign painters. For example, in 1805 William King (1750–ca. 1850) advertised as a profilist and a provider of electric-shock treatment, the latter service being rather popular at the time (Benes 1994). Silhouettists often advertised in the local papers, staying in populous areas for a few weeks or months before moving on. (For more on the American itinerant artist, see Hill 1984, and for an excellent discussion of the professional life of one silhouettist, Ethan A. Greenwood, see Barnhill 1993.)

The major silhouettists working in the United States were Edouart, William James (“Master”) Hubard, Raphaelle Peale, Moses Williams (1777–ca. 1825), William Bache (1771–1845), Moses Chapman (ca. 1783–1821), William Doyle, Henry Williams, William King, and William Henry Brown. Silhouettes, first made in the 1760s or 1770s, became very popular in the 1780s. By 1803, a large number of both itinerant and stationary artists were available to cut silhouettes throughout the eastern United States (Miller 1988). In fact, prior to the arrival of Edouart in 1839, there were already more than 40 artists cutting silhouettes, some by hand and others with the help of a tracing device. The craze died down after the first decade of the 19th century. Interest in silhouettes revived in the 1830s, and it may well be that Edouart was essential to this revitalization, as he cut portraits of some of the most influential people of the time (Oliver 1977).

Auguste Edouart was an essential figure in silhouette history as he was one of the finest practitioners and his career spanned two continents. The facts surrounding Edouart's life are well documented and need only be touched on here (Edouart 1835; Oliver 1977; Laughon and Laughon 1984; Laughon and Laughon 1987). He was born in France in 1789, and in 1829 he went to England to find employment. After making intricate pictures with hair, he discovered his talent for silhouette cutting by chance. Edouart apparently cut a silhouette to illustrate to friends that he could, by hand, make a cutout silhouette superior to the tracing machine-made specimen his friends had been admiring. He turned to silhouettes in 1826 and, after enjoying success in Great Britain, set sail for the United States in 1839, where he remained for a decade.

Edouart preferred to cut the whole figure because deportment and dress allowed more of a likeness to be captured. However, Edouart's labels listed prices for cutout busts so he must have cut them, though they are much less common than his full-figure cutouts. Edouart often included personal effects such as eyeglasses or a cane to personalize the portrait. He frequently mounted his silhouettes on lithographed backdrops done by “artists (…not inferior ones)” (Edouart 1835, 13). Edouart was also a meticulous record keeper, writing the name of the sitter and the date and location of the sitting five separate times: on the back of the silhouettes and in various record and index books. He kept duplicate books that contained a copy of every silhouette he cut; like many artists, he folded the paper at least once, with the black side in, before cutting so that two (or more if the paper was folded further) silhouettes were produced, mirror images of each other. One went to the customer and the second went into Edouart's duplicate album. During his 1849 return to England, there was a shipwreck, which Edouart survived, but many of these duplicate albums were lost. The artist died in France in 1861.

Many sources state that Edouart simply looked at the sitter and snipped away. In fact, Edouart drew his subjects with graphite on the white side of the paper. Again, the paper was folded so the black was on the inside, which protected its delicate surface; it was also easier to draw on the white side of paper than on the black. Edouart often painted the edges of his silhouettes with a black medium that appears shinier and distinct from the medium used to coat the paper, a practice that covered the distracting appearance of the white paper core. Though Edouart disparaged “touching” up a cutout silhouette with decoration, he did it not infrequently (Edouart 1835). He decorated more often with chalk or graphite and less with a gold colorant. One finds the detailing much more often on objects made after 1840, when the artist had to compete with photography (Laughon 1997).

Silhouettes do continue to be made today. Helen (b. 1919) and Nel (b. 1946) Laughon from Virginia travel the East Coast cutting traditional shades at local craft fairs, historic homes, and museums. Carol Lebeaux (b. 1924) does the same in New England and is part of a four-member group called SCONE—Silhouette Cutters of New England. The silhouette informs contemporary art as well. Kara Walker (b. 1969) has taken the tradition of the silhouette and has turned it on its head. Whereas historic silhouettes were usually straightforward portraits, Walker has used the silhouetted image, either cut from paper or printed, to illustrate multilayered narratives of slavery and race. Jin Lee (b.1961), an Illinois artist, makes photograms of silhouetted female heads to highlight issues of race, identity, and appearance-based assumptions. Art historian Toby Kamps writes,“Although Lee's works are traditional in form, they also address a thoroughly contemporary set of concerns. … Lee's images also allude to historical attempts to employ photography to categorize, exoticize, or commodify individuals or groups of people” (Lee 1998, 1). Boston-based Randal Thurston (b. 1956) has been cutting forms from black and white paper for 15 years. He is currently exploring scientific anatomical specimens, both real and fantastic, in cut paper layers. Silhouettes no longer just render a likeness. Rather, this familiar format has penetrated the world of contemporary art in fresh and complex ways.


Copyright © 2002 American Institution for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works