Silhouette portraits were most popular during the late 18th and early 19th century, during the time of the English Regency period, the time that Jane Austen wrote her popular novels, and, coincidentally, during the time that the new United States became embroiled in a war. During the 200th commemoration and celebration of all of these historical intersections, there are silhouettes. One living history museum and village created an event to immerse guests in all three of these fascinating subjects.
Genesee Country Village and Museum near Rochester, New York recently invited stellar living historians from across the MidAtlantic and MidWest USA to portray the town of Batavia, NY, on the eve of the War of 1812. For this event, the museum staff called upon 200 extra soldiers, “townspeople”, naval sailors (‘on loan’ from the USS Constitution in Boston, MA), gentlewomen and gentlemen, vendors and craftspeople, and even children to excite the village. Special programming was created to allow visitors to learn about the Regency culture, Jane Austen’s society, and even military muster. Photos of the event are in the gallery at the bottom of this post.
The weekend was filled with the sight of light breezy dresses, straw bonnets, crisp uniforms, canvas tents, and the smell of gunpowder as the military groups practiced their formations. There was an excellent physician, a period apothecary, authentic tavern dining experience, ready-to-wear and custom dressmakers, sutlers, farmers, farm wives, and more. Every visiting living historian stepped into this village made from houses and buildings collected from across New York’s history – a village which invites visitors to experience New York’s history ranging from its pioneer beginnings in the 18th century into the 20th century. At left is the extensive map that beckons, informs, and teaches the visitor to each area and building.
Silhouettes By Hand was invited to create portraits for event guests and participants due to its interest in history.
Silhouette portraits in the early 1800s
Considering the celebration centered on of the turn of the 19th century, silhouette portraits had been the predominant common portrait form – even the most famous image attributed to being Jane Austen’s portrait is a silhouette. Itinerant artists transversed the new (and still small) United States, taking portraits in small towns and large cities, sometimes even venturing to individual homes to cut the portraits of whole families.
Charles Willson Peale, the popular artist and museum entrepreneur, had recently encouraged an American patent of a silhouette-taking machine that traced the contours of the face – he placed this machine in his Philadelphia museum. This dedication to the common-man’s portrait allowed more people than ever to have their silhouette portrait made – either by the customer creating his/her own silhouette using the machine, or sometimes more expertly created by Peale’s skilled machine operator, the manumitted slave Moses Williams. In England it was more common to paint the profile on plaster, ivory, glass, or paper; but in the United States the profile was more often cut, whether placing the black image on lighter card (“cut and paste” method) or cutting the lighter card to create a portrait-shaped hole (“hollow-cut” method).
Many types of people in the early 19th century, 1800-1814, would have had their profile portraits made. Military men would have had portraits made for their own families or sweethearts, and sometimes to display their uniform and attitude. Ladies would have had their silhouettes made to likewise present to family members, although it was not uncommon for the highest levels of society to create silhouette profiles (albeit mostly pasttime-quality) as parlor games. Middling-class folks would have no other portrait form that they could afford, so their silhouettes served as the celebration of family. Even those who could afford expensive portrait painting liked silhouettes.
Whether the silhouettes were made by an itinerant artist staying at an inn, a city artist with an atelier, in a family parlor by a friend, or by face-tracing machine at a museum, silhouettes became so popular that they were said to be in most homes by 1810. They became the “snapshot photos” of the era, although also a longlasting memento of loved ones.
For your enjoyment, here are a few views into 2013 Genesee Country Village and Museum‘s “War of 1812 Commemoration and Jane Austen Festival”, and celebration of the Regency period – in the rural New York USA countryside. All photos by Lauren Muney except where noted.