Silhouette cutting 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.
Although the true name is “profile”, “shade”, “shadow portrait” or simply “shadow”, the word “silhouette” is taken from the French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette in the mid 1700′s, who cut these 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, we 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.
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. Profiles can be painted on glass, plaster, or paper, or cut out of paper or even cloth.
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 old boring name, to the newly exotic name of profile portrait, “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). Photographic portraits varied widely in price, up to the tremendous fee of $10, even when average prices were less than $1 for a shirt. (see an example of prices at left, from Harper’s Ferry, W. VA). In 1880, portraiture was highly 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 and in amusement parks, but the decline of silhouettes’ popularity had already begun.
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 here – as a reminder of history, of romance of slower living, and as reminders of family.
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 contact Lauren Muney about her presentation, “Your Face: A History”.