Wednesday, 29 July 2009
I first took note of the silhouette after visiting Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, where the walls are lined with gorgeous silhouettes of him and his family.
Silhouettes became extremely popular in the late 18th/early 19th century. It was an accessible portrait to the average person of the time. They were inexpensive and quickly produced.
The word 'silhouette' is derived from Etienne de Silhouette, who was the French Controller-General of Finances during the reign of Louis XV. He was considered particularly cheap, so the nickname given to these inexpensive paper cuttings was effectively meant to mock the man.
Silhouettes can be cut out of paper, hollow cut (cutting into the paper) or painted. Silhouettes were a fun past time for the rich and an affordable portrait for the working classes. Most cut silhouettes were cut in doubles: one for a frame (that would come with the picture) and one for the album. This is why you may find two of the same silhouette today in different locations. Painted silhouettes were usually achieved by mixing beer with pine soot and then painting it on ivory or plaster. One silhouette artist in particular, Mrs. Isabella Beetham, would use her finger to smudge the soot mixture onto the ivory. If you look at one of her paintings closely, thumb prints can be easily spotted in the images.
One of the most common silhouette artists to be found is John Miers, who had a studio on the Strand in London.
When the photograph came along the silhouette was all but obselete. It did see a revival in popularity in the early 20th century, but most of these were done by machine. There are still some silhouette artists today: you can book them for parties and weddings, and they can even be found at Disneyland. I find that there is just something so tasteful and intimate about a silhouette that a regular painted portrait just doesn't convey.
Top silhouettes are of Martha and George Washington and the bottom is an example of a Miers portrait.