The concept of tracing the shadowed outline of a person’s profile has been an artform practiced for hundreds of years. Until the invention of the camera, the only way to quickly and cheaply immortalize a loved one was through a shade also referred to as shadow portraits. It provided a simple and inexpensive alternative for those who could not afford more decorative and expensive forms of portraiture, such as painting or sculpture. Early artisans would simply copy a person’s profile, using no more than scissors on paper and their two eyes, creating within minutes a freehand miniature in startling accuracy. Or they would paint with soot or lamp black onto plaster or glass. Casting shadows onto paper with lights was another technique utilized, the artist then tracing and, depending on his talent and financial offering of the client, cutting in fine materials or with more elaborate details.
Nonetheless, the artistry was inexpensive. This fact, however, did not halt it from becoming all the rage in early 1700’s Europe, especially France, where the aristocracy embraced the amusement. Featured artists would attend extravagant balls and cut out the distinguished profiles of the Lords and Ladies capturing the latest fashions and elaborate wigs. In a strange twist of irony, it was this very thrifty artform taken to incredible extremes by the pre-Revolutionary French noblemen and women that would later give the tracing of shades it’s perpetual name.
While the aristocrats were having their profiles cut out and eating like kings, much of Europe was starving. In the 1760s the Finance Minister of Louis XV, Etienne de Silhouette, had crippled the French people with his merciless tax polices. Oblivious to his people’s plight, Etienne was much more interested in his hobby of cutting out paper profiles. He was so despised by the people of France that in protest the peasants wore only black mimicking his black paper cutouts. The saying went all over France, “We are dressing a la Silhouette. We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!”
The name ‘silhouette’ in relation to shades would not be used for another forty years, but the art of profiling in shadow would proliferate. Thankfully the negative connotation did not last. Nor did the plain, unadorned black sketches. Clients wanted novelty and artists needed to stand out from competitors. This soon led to elaborate variations on the simple cut profile. By the 1790s, many profiles were painted – on paper, ivory, plaster, or even glass. Elaborate embellishments became prominent, depicting jewelry, lace collars, and elaborate hairstyles. Bronzing, or the process of adding fine brushes of gold paint to the hair or clothing, became very popular after 1800. Inevitably prices increased as the materials became more expensive. Yet, the simple truth is that it is the black face which allows the work to be termed a silhouette. Any extra detail on the face would have made it a portrait, not a shade!While some shades were life sized, or nearly so, most were very tiny. Placing the shadowy profile of a loved one onto a broach or necklace required a skill of astounding proportions. Two of those most gifted were Englishmen John Field and John Miers. The plumed woman to the left is one of Miers’s masterpieces. Miers opened a London business in 1788, attained a high level of success and fame including the honor of painting King George III and Queen Charlotte.
The art of silhouette cutting reached its “golden age” in the 1800s. Many eighteenth century silhouettists were in fact aspiring portrait artists or miniaturists. Some of them turned to creating silhouettes to tide themselves over when business was slack. Others found they developed a name for their work in this genre, and quickly developed a market for it. Often unpretentious, they gave their public what they wanted without aspiring to artistic greatness, therefore reflecting with great clarity the pre-occupations and sensibilities of their time. The simple truth here is that it is the black face which allows the work to be so reasonably priced. Any extra detail on the face would have made it a portrait, not a shade!
The most famous silhouettist of the Regency Era was August Edouart. He resisted the fancier flourishes, insisting on the traditional black outline, although his lithographed backgrounds are legendary for their beauty. It was also he who first used the term ‘silhouette’ formally, believing it had a magnificence to elevate the art form. He traveled up and down the English coast plying his artistry and becoming very wealthy in the process. By the end of his life it is estimated that he amassed a collection of over 100,000 portraits! Tragically a shipwreck off the coast of Jersey would lead to the vast bulk of his portfolio being lost at the bottom of the sea, where they presumably still remain. Edouart escaped death, but was so grief stricken at the loss that he never again cut a profile.
With the advent of the camera and the increased availability of reasonably priced paints, silhouette as a unique art form waned. By the 20th century there were few artisans who maintained the professional attitude, and they were generally found at carnivals and seaside resorts. That is not to say, however, that the craft of silhouette died completely.
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