Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Captured in Silhouette

QUESTION: I found this delightful little silhouette at a recent antique show. I’ve seen them in books but know nothing about them. What are the origins of silhouettes and how did people make them?

ANSWER:  Silhouettes were popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries before the invention of photography. Named after Etienne de Silhouette, Louis XV's controller-general of finances, known for his hobby of cutting profiles from black paper, they eventually turned into an art form.

But silhouettes actually date from classical Greece where they graced Greek and Etruscan pottery and ancient Egyptian frescoes. Their fame came much later when they re-emerged during the 17th century as the "poor man's portrait."

There was a real need for accurate and affordable likenesses of loved ones that didn’t require lengthy sittings and could be produced in duplicate. The solution was the silhouette. Neo-Classicism caught hold in the early 19th century, further cementing the popularity of the silhouette and giving it artistic prestige.

The process of making silhouette portraits was simple. Using the light of a candle, the maker threw the sitter's profile as a shadow against a sheet of paper and traced it with a pencil. He or she then transferred the outlined profile to a piece of black paper, then cut it out or transferred it to a white card, filled in with black ink and then applied it to a white board. Though simple to make, silhouettes weren’t limited to amateurs.

Professional silhouette-cutters, known as profilers, thrived, particularly in Europe where a distinctive and subtler style of silhouette portraiture evolved. Basic black British and American silhouettes had little adornment. Profilers from the Continent, particularly France, used colored and metallic inks to add highlights to the portraits and give them an illusion of being three-dimensional.

The golden age of the profiler occurred during the early 19th century when they achieved the same notoriety as painters.

By the 1830s, professional silhouette artists had abandoned free-hand techniques and started to employ devices such as specially designed "sitting" chairs, scaling tools, and the camera obscura in attempts to achieve accurate likenesses of their subjects. These mechanical aids enabled the operator to achieve almost photographic likenesses, but at the expense of artistry. Although most profilers signed their free-hand silhouettes, few of the later works produced using these mechanical techniques bear their maker's signature.

Pre-Victorian silhouettes concentrated on providing only a head and shoulders portrait. They have provided an accurate record of fashionable couture—hairstyles, wigs, ribbons, jewelry and laces. The style of silhouettes changed in the 1840s to include half and full-length portraits, making them even more useful for indicating what was in vogue for the Victorians. Silhouette portraits became so plentiful that they were exchanged much as a calling card would be used later in the 19th century.

By the mid-19th century the popularity of the silhouette had begun to decline. In an attempt to revive it, artists developed a variety of techniques to make them richer and more attractive, including the introduction of color, gilding and fancy backgrounds. But the silhouette's strength was in its simplicity. This fad, combined with the popularization of photography, helped to bring on the demise of the silhouette. The art form became nothing more than a fairground novelty where it has remained ever since.


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