Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2006 Newsletter

Et Ceterata: Silhouettes


Silhouettes from the Willoughby-Blake Collection

Silhouette artistry goes back to classical antiquity but really began to flourish at the end of the 17th century as an art form in Europe.

It was to reach prominence in the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century. Before the invention of photography in 1826 silhouettes became the cheapest, quickest, and most accurate method of preserving one's likeness. Silhouettes became popular with members of royal families, famous leaders, and common people.

The Ransom Center has in its holdings 18 silhouettes from the Willoughby-Blake Collection.

Originally called "profile shades" or "shadow portrait," "silhouette" was coined by the French as a derogatory reference to Louis XV's Minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette, who had crippled the French people with his tax policies. Oblivious to the plight of the people of France, Etienne was much more interested in his hobby of cutting paper profiles. He was so despised by the people that in protest, the peasants wore only black to mimic his black paper cutouts. Out of both his parsimony and his hobby came the term "silhouette," which is still in use today.

Early silhouettes were profiles of heads or busts and were all black, taking their form from the solid back shadows of the individual. These were usually cut from black paper (paper that had been darkened with soot or charcoal) with scissors, or black silk was placed behind the silhouette to reveal the profile.

As the demand for silhouettes grew, artists began working in a variety of other mediums. Silhouettes painted on plaster, sometimes known as composition, were made of fine white chalk pressed flat under glass to create an even and smooth surface. Plaster was preferred to paper because it did not discolor or fade with sunlight. A pigment of pine soot and beer was used because neither watercolor nor India ink was appropriate for the porous surface. Silhouettes painted on glass were painted on the reverse side of the glass, which was most often convex. When mounted with a flat paper surface behind, the painted silhouette threw a shadow onto the paper, creating a double-silhouette effect. Soot was sometimes applied with a thumb, and a needle was often used to scratch out pigment to delineate detail.

Ivory was a favored medium used in jewelry settings. From simple black shapes, painted or pasted on paper, silhouettes became beautiful black, bronzed, or colored masterpieces, painted with infinite care and detail onto ivory, plaster, card, and glass.

The art of silhouette cutting reached its golden age in the early 1800s, especially in America. Many European silhouette artists immigrated and became rich and famous, catering to American politicians and the wealthy. Other artists traveled to county fairs and small towns, capturing the profiles of countless ordinary people. Silhouette artists have left a visual history of portraiture, and without them the facial likeness of many men and women who were important to American history would be unknown.

Silhouettes remain popular today and have become one of the most popular art forms to collect. There are a few artists still cutting silhouettes today, but we of the computer age may be seeing the last generation of silhouette artists.  

—Darnelle Vanghel

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