Silhouettes: An Alternative Portraiture with a Dark History (pun intended), a Guest Post from Sharon Lathan

This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on November 28, 2017. Enjoy! 

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 a shadow portrait. As opposed to more decorative and expensive forms of portraiture like painting or sculpture, a shade was a simple and inexpensive alternative.

Early artisans could 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 might paint with soot or lamp black onto plaster or glass. Casting shadows onto paper with lights was another technique utilized. The artist traced the shadow and depending on his talent and the financial offering of the client, would cut from fine materials or add elaborate details.

Being an inexpensive artistry did not halt tracing shadow profiles from becoming all the rage in early 1700’s Europe. In France, 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 thrifty art form 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 policies. 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 brooch 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 most famous silhouettist of the Regency Era was Auguste 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 became 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.

Eduart silhouette of a magic lantern show, the silhouettes positioned against a lithographed background.

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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