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Miniature portraits had been the rage of aristocracy
whom had worn portraits as jewelry since at least the 15th century. But
for 300 years, the expense required for a full color likeness to be
commissioned had restricted the availability to the wealthy and kept the
ordinary person from acquiring a portable likeness of their loved ones.
In the late 18th century, shade portraits became popular with the masses
because it represented a cheaper alternative to full color portraits.
Although the black profile was made popular by the
masses, its popularity soon reached across income levels back to the
aristocracy. Wealthy patrons commissioned silhouettes to be
painted and encrusted with precious stones in jewelry and snuff boxes.
Royalty commissioned porcelain dinner services with silhouettes.
Common folk filled albums with silhouette likenesses of family and
Originally called "Profile Shades" or "Shadows" in
England, the French coined the term "à la
Silhouette" as a derogatory reference to Louis XV's former French Minister
of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette, who was considered a
cheapskate. When de Silhouette left his government position, he reputedly retired to a
farmhouse which he decorated with home-made paper cuttings.
However, by the early 19th century, profile artists began to associate
Silhouette with elegance, as illustrated by an advertisement in the Mary
4, 1813 New York Gazette:
E. Metcalf, Miniature and Profile Painter,
respectfully informs his friends and the public, that he has removed
to 21 Courtlandt street, a few doors from Broadway, where he will
paint Miniatures & Profiles for from 3 to 15 dollars, warranted -
Also, will take the most perfect Likenesses a la Silhouette in his
superior style of elegance, reduced to any size, (or copied) from 25
cents to one dollar. He will furnish Miniature and Profile Frames,
Lockets, &c. of any description. Private lessons given in Drawing
and the French language. Regular attendance from 9 til 3 o'clock.1
second quarter of the 19th century, the great master cutter
Edouart felt that the term "shade" was derogatory to his art
began using the term "silhouettist" to describe himself. The term
became popular and carried forward to today.
Antique silhouettes may be found
in 4 general forms
Painted on paper, card,
vellum, ivory, silk, or porcelain;
Painted in reverse on glass;
Hollow cut, usually with the aid of a
machine but, very rarely by hand. In this process the figure
is cut away from the paper thereby leaving a negative image.
The paper outline is then backed with a contrasting color of paper or fabric;
Cut freehand with scissors
or knives and then pasted to a contrasting (usually light-colored) background (cut & paste).
Early 18th century profiles were
all black, taking their form from the solid black shadow of the
unadorned individual. Towards the end of the 18th century, artists
began to distinguish their works with the barest of bronzing. As
the 19th century progressed, the audience demanded more elaborate
decoration and the artists obliged with embellishment that became more
prominent, depicting jewelry, lace collars, and elaborate hairstyles.
In America especially, a group of mostly unidentified artists cut
wonderfully naive hollow cut profiles atop painted or lithographed stock
On both sides of the ocean,
artists of the 19th century sometimes applied their cut or painted
silhouettes on lithograph or watercolor backgrounds which bring even more
attention to the regal simplicity of the shade portrait itself.
If you would like to learn more about antique
silhouettes and silhouette making in the period of 1760 to 1870, I recommend reading any of the following books. They
are all out of print but I will try to good used copies of them for sale
at Books. If I don't have a
copy I might be able to direct you to a used and rare
bookseller with the one you are looking for in inventory.
Alice Van Leer Carrick, Shades Of Our Ancestors
(Little, Brown, and Company 1928).
E. Nevill Jackson, Silhouettes A History and
Dictionary of Artists (Dover Publications, Inc. 1981) **This
book was first published in 1938 under the title Silhouette:
Notes and Dictionary.
Sue McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and
their Work 1760-1860 (Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd 1978)
Blume J. Rifken, Silhouettes in America,
1790-1840 A Collectors' Guide (Paradigm Press, Inc. 1987).
A new and visually stunning book about antique
silhouettes is the following which is also for sale on my
Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow
(Rizzoli New York 2009).
Additionally, please see the
page for information about some of our favorite 18th and 19th century
silhouette artists. I always appreciate your emails with questions or
Peggy is available for lectures about
thanks to Sue Anderson for uncovering the 1813 newspaper advertisement
that has enlightened the silhouette world that a la Silhouette
was used as a term of elegance by the early 19th century.