As an alternative to paintings, drawings and sculptures, silhouettes like these — hand-cut from paper — were a relatively affordable way to remember loved ones.
The bust silhouettes below, created by artist Charles Willson Peale between 1760 and 1827, were cut from the middle of white paper, and mounted on a black background.
None of the women who were the subjects of these antique portraits have been identified.
Old Time Silhouettes (1913)
By Arthur S. Vernay / Photos by T.C. Turner — American Homes and Gardens (June 1913)
A curious revival seems to be taking place in “shadowgraphy” — that long-neglected art which was so fashionable in mid-Victorian days — and “silhouettes” and “profilists” (as some prefer to be called) are springing up everywhere. Doubtless many of these present-day artists are clever and original, but somehow their shadow-work seems to lack the charm and wistfulness of the older masters. True, not all the silhouettes of bygone days are things of beauty — some, if the truth be told, being more than a trifle crude — but even the least artistic possess a rare charm from “associations” and the reflection that the originals have themselves passed into shadowland.
For many years now I have collected silhouettes and the doing so has given me an infinite amount of pleasure. There is no member of my shadow family — and they number many hundreds — that I do not seem to know personally in an altogether familiar and delightful way and about whom I have not, at some time or other, woven a romantic history. That, indeed, is the great charm of the silhouette — and its irresistible personal appeal.
Who was it originated the first shadow-picture? No one can tell for no one really knows. Legends regarding Etruscan maids outlining their lovers’ shadows and similar stories are numerous but who believes them? We do know, however, that the earliest artists in monochrome practiced shadowgraphy — or “skiagraphy,” as they called it — and it is therefore not improbable that Cleanthes of Corrinth or Philocles of Egypt may have originated the first silhouette.
The origin of the name “silhouette” is easier to trace. Etienne de Silhouette was French Minister of Finance at the close of the war in 1759, and through the reforms which he introduced to enable the country to recover from its financial embarrassments the people were called upon to practice many economies. With a strong hand he endeavored to put down all extravagance and even the artists, in order to support de Silhouette’s policy ironically agreed to make their portraits in outline only. When France found her financial feet again all de Silhouette’s economies vanished as quickly as they had come — all but the outline portrait which survived under the name of “Silhouette.” This, most authorities are agreed upon, is the genesis of the name given to the shadow portrait though it is not, of course, suggested that it was in the Silhouette’s time that this style of portrait originated.
The character of the Silhouette gives a good indication of its date. That of 1720, for instance, is distinguished by having the portrait cut out of white paper and removed, leaving the margins, which were laid on a background of thin black wood or paper. About 1750, came the portrait painted in black on white paper. Among these may be found full-length groups or what were known as “conversation pieces” — the profiles showing much artistic minuteness while much elaboration is found in the head-dresses — delicate lace-work, floral decorations, etc. To this period also belongs the real Silhouette as we understand it today — black profiles laid down on white paper or extremely delicately tinted backgrounds.
It is, of course, erroneous to suppose that the Silhouette proper always consisted of a cut-out profile. As we have seen, some were painted in black on white paper, while in 1770 Christopher Sharp, of Cambridge, etched his portraits on copper and “ran off” as many copies as his clients desired. These were called “Silhouettes” and in twenty years this enterprising artist turned out tens of thousands of portraits. That they were not very highly valued is shown by the fact that very few have been preserved.
Distinct from the portrait of 1750, is that of forty or fifty years later. Like its forerunner the profile was painted in black, but in addition it had very wonderful and elaborate “accessories.” Beautiful as a miniature, these portraits were adorned with delicately shaded hair and headdress while the dainty ear showed a gilded ring. No praise is too extravagant for these exquisite examples, and that more have not survived the ravages of time seems a thousand pities.
Another form of Silhouette is that in which the portrait is painted in black on a concave glass, the hair and dress shaded lighter, and the whole floated over with a thin coating of wax. Delicate as the wing of a butterfly, these Silhouettes were differcult to preserve, for in a very short time the wax cracked and the portrait was spoilt. As a consequence perfect specimens of this style and period are dificult to find. It is easy for even the amateur collector to recognize them apart from the extreme fineness of the work for the genuine have gilt brass margins of oval form set in square frames of black polished pasteboard.
It would require a volume to speak individually of the Silhouettes in my collection for each one possesses a value that can best be appreciated by the collector. There are few Silhou- ettists of the past whose work is not represented, and in many cases by several specimens. All are in excellent preservation, for I am a practical collector and believe in perfect specimens whenever possible. Many have already been described and reproduced in English and American art magazines. Most of those shown here have not been published before.
Of the Silhouettists of the nineteenth century the most famous was Auguste Edouart, who commenced to make Silhouettes in 1825. It was chance that led him to take up the art. While visiting some friends he was shown two or three profile portraits made by a machine which had just been invented. Edouart was asked if he did not think them “wonderful,” and when told whom they represented, he replied by saying they were “execrable.” A child, he said, could do better, and in order to prove his point he seized a pair of scissors and the cover of a letter and quickly snipped out the profile of his host’s daughter. This he blackened with the aid of the snutters and mounted. The likeness was so excellent that he was persuaded to make portraits of other members of the family and some of the guests. Congratulations were showered upon him, and so commenced Edouart’s career as a professional Silhouettist.
It is believed that Edouart’s first professional sitter was the Bishop of Bangor, who paid the artist five shillings for the initial portrait. Afterwards he ordered forty more at the same price. Edouart’s fame quickly spread and he was soon snipping out the portraits of half the celebrities of England. He was received at Court and made much of, and it soon became ‘the thing’ to be silhouetted by “the incomparable Edouart.” At Holyrood Palace, he made a portrait of Charles X, ex-King of France. This he did in four thicknesses of paper, presenting one to the little Prince, the Duc de Bordeaux, one to the Prince’s sister, one to the Duchesse de Berri and one to the Duchesse d’Angouléeme. The portrait was made while his majesty walked about the room “in his usual mood of thoughtfulness.”
Edouart was an author as well as an artist and it would be well worth the collector’s while to read his “Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses,” published by Longmans in 1835. The work, of course, has long since been out of print but copies may be seen at the various national libraries. In it Edouart tells many amusing stories of the little vanities which many of his sitters evinced. One gentleman, he says, who was “undershot” begged him not to emphasize his lower lip, and in order to frustrate any attempt to do so “drew in his lip and thus destroyed all chance of a likeness.” The lady with the nez retroussé desired that he substitute for it one of “pure Greek,” while the corpulent ones begged to be portrayed slim and the thin ones plump. Edouart, getting impatient with his vain clients, would turn his attention to children whom he loved to silhouétte and whose “flower-like profiles” he generally succeeded in retaining.
Edouart took his art very seriously, and in order to retain a steady hand rose early, dieted himself and eschewed all wines and spirits. His memory for a face was remarkable and one of the best portraits he ever made was that of Daniel O’Connell, from whom he never had a sitting, but whom he saw once for about five minutes in the Chamber of Commerce, Dublin. Many portraits of his friends he made entirely from memory.
Edward Ward Foster preceded Edouart by a few years and though his work never attained the popularity of his successor it has much charm. Most of Foster’s Silhouettes were made at Derby, where he had a studio to which many celebrities found their way. He employed a machine which he is said to have invented himself and which he guaranteed would “take Profiles of any Lady or gentleman in a manner accurately precise in Resemblance, and perform same in the short space of one minute.”
Edouart condemned all mechanical aids to portraiture, and it was possibly this very machine of Foster’s which aroused his special ire, for about the time when Edouart was making a reputation as a Silhouettist, this machine — or one very similar — was on exhibition at Madame Toussaud’s in Baker Street, where one could have a portrait made for prices varying from two to seven shillings apiece.
Many other machines for making profile portraits came into use during the first half of the twentieth century, but even in those days they were looked upon as more or less of curiosities, while the Silhouettist who worked with scissors and brain only was regarded as an artist whose work deserved serious consideration.
Another celebrated Silhouettist of the early Victorian period was a young artist named Hubard. Hubard had a very charming personality, and as his work was equally attractive his clients numbered many hundreds. Among his earliest patrons was Robert Browning, who sat for him for a very interesting profile portrait which is now in my collection. Hubard commenced his work as a professional Silhouettist at the age of thirteen, and four years later came to New York, where he opened a gallery and cut portraits for fifty cents each. He was summoned to Kensington Palace, where he made a portrait of Princess Victoria at the age of ten. Hubard’s Silhouettes are rare.
Among other Silhouettists whose work has been preserved, and who flourished during the nineteenth century, might be mentioned E. Haines, to whom many members of the Royal Family gave sittings and whose work is justly admired; J. Gapp, who did a “roaring business” on the Chain Pier at Brighton, and C. Atkinson, whose principal claim to silhouette honors lies in the fact that George III and his sons gave him frequent sittings.
Germany has already given us some clever artists with the scissors, perhaps the most remarkable being Paul Konewka, who is said to have worked entirely by touch, frequently making portraits with his hands covered, to the great astonishment of his clients. Karl Frohlich, whose dainty work illustrative of children, butterflies, cupids, etc., is so well-known and admired, began life as a compositor. Packney, of Vienna, gained fame for his Silhouette work somewhat about the forties, while Runge, the German artist, astonished and delighted Goéthe by the ease with which he cut out flowers, etc.
Curiously enough, the art of “Silhouetting” does not appear to have attracted many women artists. “Mrs. Lightfoot of Liverpool,” who practised it during the latter part of the eighteenth century, always referred to her portraits as “shades” and guaranteed to preserve “the most exact symmetry and animated expression of the features.” In her advertisement Mrs. Lightfoot adds an important N.B. — “Mrs. Lightfoot keeps the original shades and can supply those she has taken with any number of duplicates. Those who have shades by them may have them reduced and dressed in present taste. In this way, “Mrs. Lightfoot of Liverpool” probably built up a very lucrative business. Mrs. Beetham, of Buxton, and Patience Wright were other lady artists who turned their attention to Silhouetting with considerable success.
The collecting of Silhouettes is growing in favor year by year, and as a consequence specimens by recognized artists are becoming extremely rare. It is well, perhaps, to remember that the Silhouette frequently possesses two values — first, as the work of a recognized artist and, second, as the portrait of a celebrity. The portrait of an unknown person by a famous Silhouettist may be worth a great deal, but its value will be greatly increased if the likeness is that of some historic character.
And in conclusion, I would beg all amateur collectors to exercise extreme care when purchasing Silhouettes as, obviously, they lend themselves to forgery more easily than even autographs. If in doubt regarding the genuineness of a specimen, it is well worth the trouble to first obtain the opinion of an expert which — from the experiences of my early days — will, I am sure, be cheerfully and even gladly given.