Silhouettes in History
© 2014, Lauren Muney
Silhouette (profile) portraiture was the popular way to recreate an image of oneself or loved one before the invention and common use of photography in the mid 1800’s. During the years of 1500 and 1860, professional and amateur artists would either paint or cut profiles – using paints or scissors.
The below overview gives a sense of the expanse of silhouette portraits, but is no means exhaustive. There are many books with history, artists, and examples that have thrived over centuries.
Top image: Silhouette copies from William Bache's archive book (1771-1845)
From Pliny the Elder’s ancient Roman descriptions, the world reads that portraiture may have started as profile images – as the maiden Dibutade captures her love’s image before he departs for war. (Seen here: Regnault’s imagining of this debut of portraiture)
Although the common names are “profile”, “shade”, “shadow portrait” or “likeness”, the familiar word “silhouette” is taken from the French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette in the mid 1700’s, who was rumored to cut profiles in his spare time. He was disliked by those who were affected by his tax plans, chopping tax money from the rich and reducing cost expenditures in the French government. Needless to say, he wasn’t well liked.
Some writers explain the phrase “à la silhouette” (in the manner of Silhouette) was applied to things which were cheap, including cheaply-made portraits cost far less than the traditional extravagent painted portraits and sculptures. Anything “à la silhouette” was a reduction to the simplest form. (George Washington’s shadow portrait is shown here – although he was a man who did afford his expensive painted portraits).
Profiles have a long romantic history including (supposedly) as a hobby by Catherine de Medici (1500’s), as an aid to judging personality by the physiognomist Johann Lavater (late 1700’s), as love-tokens by countless soldiers in wartime, and posted in homes to remember family members for hundreds of years. Profile portraits showed the images of their sitters when painted portraits were just too expensive or unable to be reproduced (such as the profile at left of the first circus entrepreneur, Philip Astley).
Profiles can be painted on glass, plaster, or paper, or cut out of paper or even cloth – they truly are a microcosm of the society in which they reside, showing society’s views on social status and economics, commerce, travel habits, family values and inheritance, fashion (or utilitarianism), and other factors which wove the details of everyday life in every decade.
Profile portraits served an additional function – they connected the 1700s sitter to his Greek and Roman “ancestors”, those long-gone folks shown on the faces of coins. Do you notice any similarity between the profiles on the coins, and the profile portraits of the 1700 and 1800s?
The later 1700s was the era of “The Grand Tour”, when the elite of British society toured through Greece, Italy, and the Continent adventuring through their own past by looking at old ruins and learning about the teachings of the classics. This “classic” interest spurred a new excitement of all things Italian, Greek, and Roman – so much that the “neo-Classicism” movement invaded art, architecture, and even politics for decades to come. Ever wondered where the “ancient” idea of democracy came from? Look no farther than the teachings of the Greeks.
One of the iconic silhouette images is the portrait believed to be Jane Austen (seen at left), writing her romantic stories in the late 18th and early 19th (1800s) centuries, captivating hearts and spirits for hundreds of years. The decadent Regency period is especially remembered for silhouette portraits.
Painting or cutting profiles by hand may have been a skill, but when “machines” for tracing a clients face were developed, this ‘technology’ became the rage for inexpensive profile artists: they could impress their clients with the latest device.
Whether the machine cast a client’s shadow on the wall, or traced the face’s shape, the late 1700’s and early 1800’s were filled with artists looking to gain clientele – and remove clientele from their artist rivals. With the heavy competition for portraits, even the name of the portraiture began to change – from its origins of “shadow portraits”, the common name, to the newly exotic name of profile portraits, “silhouettes”.
Portraiture continued to be popular with heavy competition amongst the artists. With few inexpensive opportunities for personal images, portrait artists became more widespread. Temporary rooms in hotels, traveling artists, or permanent studios, there were all types of portrait artists. Some traveled from rural town to rural town, finding their clientele in their own houses.
Some portraitists frequented the resort towns in the high seasons. Some artists claimed the highest social status of the artisan class, due to their work with the nobility and royalty. Portraiture could be a poor artist’s skill or a rich artist’s skill; perhaps the art was not in the hands, but in the personality.
Photography was developed in 1829, and improved steadily and enthusiastically. When portrait photography became possible around 1840, silhouette portraiture was on a downhill slide. “From today, painting is dead!” exclaimed Paul Delaroche (1839). (The photograph at left is a ferrotype of your silhouette artist Lauren Muney, taken by Harrington Traveling Artists in 2012, using the wet-plate photographic method most popular in the mid 1800s, but popular past the turn of the 20th century.)
Photographic portraits varied widely in price, up to the tremendous fee of $10, even when average prices for a shirt were less than $1. But the improvements in photographic processes through the decades of the 1800s meant that photography was becoming the new portrait form.
Silhouettes were not really “dead” when photography was invented – many eminent citizens enjoyed their own portraits created in profile. One of the most well-loved set of work was created by French-born Auguste Edouarte, a man whose ego seemed as large as his talent.
Eduoarte first began his work in the late 1830s after becoming frustrated by the lack of artistry of machine-made silhouettes, so he picked up scissors to try his own hand at scissor-cutting silhouette portraits. Proclaiming his own talent, he set on a travel tour that included his native France, Britain, and then the United States. His tales and travels included the most powerful people on the continents.
By 1880, portraiture was quite affordable to the average person. In the excitement of the new medium of photography, silhouettes slid away. It stayed for a while in rural areas, harvest festivals, amusement resorts, but the decline of silhouettes’ popularity had already begun as a mainstay of daily portraiture.
In the 1920's there seemed to be a resurgence in silhouette interest and also portraiture. No longer a discarded art that was surpassed by fashionable gadgets, silhouettes were appreciated once again. Possibly the renewed interest were part of the Arts and Crafts Movement; at any rate silhouettes gained some fans thanks to some special (and flamboyant) artists.
Fortunately in the 20th century, a few people looked past the silhouettes in attics and museums and continued the art form, as “art” and also as amusements. And that’s what you discover at Silhouettes By Hand – an artisan reminder of history, of romance of slower living, and as reminders of family. You too can have your own silhouette profiles created at a live event or by mail order.
Visit a wonderful article about silhouettes and profile art is from Early American Life magazine: A History of Profile Portraits.
If you are interested in a fascinating (and amusing) presentation on silhouette history to present at your facility, including an option to cut silhouettes for attendees, please visit this page for museum or educational programs.