Cutout silhouette of a woman with a book, 19th century

p4A ItemID F7951722
Hollowcut silhouette of five siblings, dated 1848

p4A ItemID F7951716
A watercolor silhouette of children playing with toys, 19th century, one of three sold together

p4A ItemID F7951711
Hollow-cut silhouette depicting six family members, probably American, second quarter of the 19th century

p4A ItemID F7950899


Silhouettes are side-view portraits much in fashion between 1770 and 1860 as a lower cost alternative to oil or watercolor portraits. Silhouettes are also known as “shades” (for shadows) or more correctly as “profiles” (profiles in miniature). The origin of silhouettes is thought to go back to the shadows cast by a fire on the walls of caves so it can be claimed that silhouettes or “shades” were an important influence in the origin of all art.

The word silhouette is comparatively modern and originates with a Frenchman named Etienne de Silhouettes (1709 to 1767), a discredited Minister of Finance to Louis XV, whose favorite hobby was the cutting of profiles from black paper. He did not invent the art, but his name was applied to it for derogatory reasons.

Silhouettes retained their popularity for ninety years due to their low cost for an accurate likeness of a person, the very short time in which they could be “cut”, and the number of multiple copies that could be made easily. In the latter part of the eighteenth century a much broader portion of the populace began to travel more widely. People came and went, and they made new friends with whom they exchanged “shades” as we do snapshots today. During this period silhouettes were common in Europe, particularly in England, but also in France, Germany and Holland. From 1790 on they became common in Federal America. Most old silhouettes found today will be American, with some English.

Many shadow portrait cutters probably started their art as a hobby. For those with some talent, the admiration of their work by friends led them into a fulltime profession as “profilests”. Often whole families were involved in silhouette making. The advent of daguerreotype photography in the 1840′s began the decline in silhouettes which was further hastened by improvements in oil and gas lighting which banished the deep shadows cast by candlelight.

In general, silhouettes are of two types: one is painted, the more difficult and time-consuming type; the other type is cut from paper, cheapest, quickest and most common variety. The more costly painted type are more common in England than America. There are many varieties of painted silhouettes, such as full “profile” portraits, shadows, reverse painted on glass, painted on paper, card, ivory, plaster, chalk, and painted supplemental parts such as hair and clothing details on the cut-from-paper types. Painted interior room settings are also found, sometimes in elaborate detail.

The cut-from-paper type can generally be broken down into two main categories: the type cut from black paper and “pasted” on white paper; and the hollow-cut, the most common cut-from-paper type found in the United States. The hollow-cut profile of a person was cut out from white paper, then the hollow-cut out was mounted over usually black paper or black cloth and occasionally black painted paper, thus the silhouette shows up as a black profile. Many hollow-cuts are adorned by overlays of bronzing, pencil, sepia wash or india ink. Often the small cut and paste type were cut with scissors by the artist looking at the profile of the person and cut in twenty seconds or so. However, some of the cut-and-paste silhouettes, and most of the hollow-cut silhouettes, were cut by a quasi-machine process.

The “machine process” basically entailed either the subject’s shadow being cast on a wall with paper on it and the “artist” just traced around the full size head shape, or the subject sat in a straight and rigid silhouette chair with an oilpaper mounted on the side of the head. With the shadow cast on the paper the artist stepped behind the shadow and traced around the full size head shape. Then a machine called a pantograph, which accurately enlarges or reduces the size, as in silhouettes, traced the full size head and the pencil reduced the shape to the small size. With an accurate small size profile the artist then either cut out the shape with flexible scissors or in most cases with hollow-cuts, cut out the shape with a very sharp penknife. Thus, the machine or pantograph provided a small size true profile of the person.

In addition to picture portraits, silhouettes are also found in brooches, lockets, rings and on boxes or plates and other types of objects. Most profiles are of the upper torso and head of the person. A few Americans and many English profilests cut or painted full body profiles, often of a couple or a group of people.

Many of the profilests were professional artists, supplementing their income. The professional artist usually did the painted silhouette, particularly the ones with fine detailed and true likeness of the subjects. Some of these artists also “cut and paste” and “hollow cut”. The amateur could provide an exact likeness by the use of the pantograph. Although most profilests were adults – men and women, some adolescent children are known to have cut silhouettes; even people without arms, like Honeywell, cut acceptable profiles.

There are several ways to identify the maker of a silhouette. Some silhouettes have “trade labels” attached to the back of the framed silhouette. In most cases these paper labels have been torn or worn off over the years. On other silhouettes artists marked their work with a stamp “a touch mark of guarantee” that embellished or embossed the name or object into the paper. In a similar fashion some artists personally signed their names to the work, usually under the bust curve of the silhouette. In other cases some artists cut or painted unique, distinct and consistent “bust curve” lines on all their silhouettes and have become known by these stylistic habits. In rare instances a silhouette may have more than one of these identifiers present.

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