If you went to school in the 60’s like I did, they probably made a black and white silhouette of you. Though I can’t remember how old I was (six or seven, maybe) I remember the experience – sitting on a chair with a light shining on one side of me and staring straight ahead without moving. I’m a little vague as to how my silhouette was transferred to the white paper, and who would’ve traced it onto black paper, but I remember the finished project. And that it hung on our wall for a long time.
What I’d give to have that portrait back again.
In this age of digital photography, silhouettes have faded into the realms of nostalgia. But in the late 1700’s, they were the cheapest, quickest and most effective way to preserve one’s likeness. Originally called ‘shades’ or ‘hollow-cuts’, artists charged mere pennies to produce a black paper cut-out or an ink painting. Others produced more ornate creations, transferring the silhouettes into beautiful black, bronzed or coloured masterpieces on ivory, plaster, card or glass. And still others simply did them at parties, for a fun souvenir for their guests.
The term ‘silhouette’ came by way of the French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette in 1759. Notoriously miserly, he enjoyed paper-cutting as a hobby, and cheap articles of portraiture became known as ‘a la Silhouette.’ Talented artists could wield their scissors freehand without sketches and/or purely from memory. The more ambitious produced life-size cuts. Noted American artist William Henry Brown took it a step further–he cut silhouettes of the entire St. Louis Fire Department–all 65 members!–finishing up with a 20 foot long group portrait. How cool would that be?!
By the mid-1800’s, however, silhouettes fell victim to the daguerreotype, and, as they, say, the rest is history. Today, silhouettes are revived by collectors and on jewelry, but also on more modern wares such as wallpaper, drapery and upholstery fabrics, dishes and stationery.
Here are some silhouettes from popular historical figures. Can you guess who they were? (No fair Googling!) I’ll post the answers later this afternoon.
Do you know who had America’s most famous silhouette? (No fair Googling!)
Did you have a silhouette made of yourself when you were young? Do you still have it?