Not-So-Weird Collection: Silhouettes

I have had a love affair with silhouettes since my childhood.  When I was somewhere between five and seven, and my parents had silhouettes cut of me and my two sisters.  The artist had us sit in profile to him, and he cut quickly with a small pair of scissors.  Here is my silhouette:

My silhouette

So, I’ve collected silhouettes for a long time, but never really known much about them.  For instance, silhouettes have been around for a long, long time.  There are examples of silhouettes in Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Pliny the Elder told a story about a woman tracing her lover’s shadow on a wall to remember him by before he left on a long trip.  Her father, a Greek potter, saw the silhouette on the wall, loved it, and started using it to decorate his pottery.  However factual this story is, there is a style of pottery with black decorations dating from 700 BCE.  This style of pottery decoration is called Black-figure pottery, but the figures have details etched into the black paint which traditional silhouettes don’t.

Silhouettes, originally called shadow portraits, became popular again in the early to mid 18th century.  Several accounts relate the rise in popularity to a conjunction of three things:  the excavation of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the finding of ancient pottery, the study of physiognomy (the belief that a person’s character is related to their features), and the rise of scrapbooking in (depending on who you believe) German or English royal courts.  I think there were people cutting shadow portraits before these three things, but they weren’t a fad, yet.

These shadow portraits supposedly started being called silhouettes after Etienne de Silhouette when he was appointed King Louis XV’s controller general in 1759.  He tried to rein in the king’s extravagance (Good luck with that!) and so became associated with everything cheap or miserly.  Silhouettes were inexpensive portraits that almost anyone could afford as opposed to oil portraits that were only available to the rich.

The art became mechanized early on using a physiognomy mechanical device like this:


This picture, Drawing a Silhouette by Johann Rudolph Schellenberg, 1740-1806, shows how silhouettes could be drawn quickly and then the image could be enlarged, shrunk, or copied using a pantograph.  There was quite a rivalry between folks who cut silhouettes free-hand, and those who used machines.  I’ve also seen pictures showing a large piece of fabric hanging between the artist and the model, with a candle throwing a shadow as a method of tracing a profile.

Silhouettes could also be reverse-painted on glass against a light background.  Sometimes these painted silhouettes are difficult to distinguish at a glance from the black paper cutouts.  There are also hollow-cuts which are silhouettes cut out of light-colored paper and placed upon a dark background.  I have examples of all three below.

Another fun fact: Hans Christian Anderson was a paper cutter as well as a writer.  He used to cut paper while telling tales to friends and their children.  At the end of the story, he would unfold the paper to show the picture he had cut.

The rage for silhouettes was significantly diminished by the emergence of photography.  They didn’t disappear altogether, and silhouettes went in and out of fashion all during the 20th century.

I should say,  before starting, that I’m sorry for the askew or reflective pictures.  Many of my silhouettes are attached to a large window screen which is screwed to a wall.  It would be more work than I’m willing to do, to get better, still not good, pictures of art under glass.  Also, since I shop mostly at thrift store, garage and estate sales, I don’t pay more than $10 for my silhouettes, and usually it’s a good deal less.  I don’t think they have a lot of value either; I just like them.

First up are some paper black-shape silhouettes:

Pair Black Paper cut silhouettes

I think these are what people typically think of when they hear the word silhouette.  They both are modern interpretations of 18th or 19th century examples.  In the beginning of the 20th century, people started copying older silhouettes just for fun or for forgeries.  While these look new to me, some of the earlier ones are very difficult for people to detect.

More black-paper silhouettes:

Black cut silhouette of regency couple in curicle  1950s couple silhouettes

These two pictures represent two periods of the silhouette fad.  Left-most is an image depicting the early 19th century, when silhouettes were reaching the crest of their popularity wave.  This is a modern silhouette of an old subject; I’m not able to guess just when it was cut.  The pair of portraits are signed in 1951, so we know when they were cut.  I really like how the artist made the man’s tie, and the lady’s corsage and hat.  It gives these two personality, in my book.

Here are a couple of unframed animal silhouettes:

Deer with flowers silhouette   Deer with flowers silhouette 2

People are so darned amazing at cutting pictures with X-Acto knives, tiny scissors, or other tools that I’m not sure if they are machine cut or hand cut.  I really liked them and that’s all that really matters to me.

Here are two more paper cut silhouettes:

Silhouette angel  Black cut silhouette of girl and bird

I think the angel was bought with the intention of making it into a Christmas card.  She is totally adorable with her birdy friend.  The girl on the right is dated 1948 and it’s hard to say where I got her.  I like that these silhouettes have two different techniques going on.  The mix of solid and line silhouette makes each of these charming in its own way.

Here are my two hollow-cut silhouettes:

Hollow cut couple 2

It’s easiest to see on the male.  The cutting is done of the white paper and then a piece of black paper is slid underneath.  The frames are older on these two pictures, but they certainly aren’t 19th century silhouettes, despite their subjects.

Far and away, the biggest part of my collection are reverse-painted silhouettes:

1800s couple pink background   Black paper cut silhouette civil war era woman

This is also an old technique, and really not any easier than cutting the image from paper, in my book.  The amount of detail in this kind of silhouettes is amazing.

Painted silhouette getting mail  silhouette Regency couple

If I get these pictures in bright light, I can often cause a shadow underneath.  I guess the paper could be stuck to the glass, but so far, they’ve all been reverse paintings.

Silhouettes can come in a wide variety of sizes and subjects.  It’s not all 18th and 19th century courting and portraits:

Painted silhouette pianoforte   Painted Silhouette kids with bubbles3

These little 4×6 inch silhouettes were probably made somewhere in the 1920s to ’30s.  The kids blowing bubbles might be my favorite silhouette of them all.  The young lady at the piano looks very 1920s to me with her cloche hat, but maybe it’s just Jeeves in the background.

And then there are painted silhouettes with foil accents:

Smith Frederick painted silhouette   Painted Silhouette Asian Tea Ceremony

The left picture is signed Smith Frederick and was made in the 1930s for Reliance Co.  It features the traditional 19th century woman.  The small silhouette on the right is completely different—perhaps a geisha practicing her music and drinking tea.  I think it could be from between 1920s to the ’40s because of the frame.  I wish more of these pictures were signed and dated!

There is a different kind of reverse painting that’s on curved glass with scenes beneath:

Painted Silhouette with curved glass2  Painted Silhouette curved glass5

They often came in pairs, but I have singles, too.  I’m not sure if they lost their friend, or this was how they were made:

Painted Silhouette with curved glass  Painted Silhouette Curved glass7

Some of these pictures were made by Benton Glass in the 1930s and ’40s; I’ve only seen these curved-glass silhouettes with these metal frames.  On the internet, there are pictures of Benton Glass silhouettes with a stripped metal frame.  Of course, when something is popular, people copied them ruthlessly.  Who knows, maybe the plain metal frames are the copy?  The pictures in my collection are either 5×4 inches or 8×6 inches.

The fabric arts also featured silhouettes:

Embroidered Chinese couple2   Cross stitch ladies having tea

Both of these pictures are cross stitch.  The two ladies on the right was done by B.H.’s Great Aunt Bea; it has a very 1920s feel to it.  I’m not sure when the Asian couple to the left were done, but the frame is considerably newer.  I’m sure I bought the pair on the left just because they were silhouettes.  My lovely S.I.L., Dorothy, gave me Aunt Bea’s picture.

One last silhouette to show you:

Hanky box

This is my hanky box and it’s a no-brainer to go into my collection.  Box, check, hankies, check, and silhouette, check; how could  I resist?  I took it apart and put a piece of black velvet behind it to make the silhouette show up.  The original piece was in tatters.

Thanks for stopping in to check out my silhouettes and the little I know about them.  Right after I finish all my button books, I’m starting one on the art of the silhouette, and will correct any mistakes I’ve made.  If you are a silhouette aficionado please share with us all.  I will go back and include informational comments in the post so that we can all learn.



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2 Responses to Not-So-Weird Collection: Silhouettes

  1. Stephanie Gazell says:

    What a charming collection – I’ll never look at silhouettes the same again! Thanks for doing such an interesting post.

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