Silhouettes Snapshots of an Era

Silhouettes Snapshots of an Era  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Garth's Auctions.  

Paper cut-out silhouettes were the photographs of the 18th and mid-19th century.  Instant keepsakes, a lover’s remembrance, family pictures—with just paper and scissors a skilled artist could profile and snip a person’s outline in minutes.  Silhouettes were especially popular during the Colonial era.

They were the snapshots of their day.      

Most silhouettes done by machine were not as proficient as the hand-done ones and today are less desirable.  One way to tell a machine drawing is to look for impressions left on the paper by the machine.

Think of them as the poor-man’s miniature photograph.  Easy to do, easy to copy and easy to send by post to friends and family, silhouettes were the perfect souvenir.  Sometimes the artist included the subjects clothing and even their hair in paint.      

These paper mementos cost pennies and were often kept in albums, scrapbooks or the family bible.  Before the invention of photography, the craze was especially popular.  Hundreds of artists set up silhouette museums or traveled from city to city catering to people’s desire for their likeness. 

Louis XV of France had a minister of Finance named Etienne de Silhouette who was a notorious cheapskate.  Anything done for next to nothing bexame synonymous with his name.  That’s how silhouettes got their name.        

The typical European method was to clip the outline out in black paper and place it on a white background.  In America it was the opposite.  They often used a hollow-cut method where the profile was cut out of paper.  What remained was mounted on silk or black, brown or red paper.  The profile itself was discarded.        

And if the artist’s hand was shaky he could always use a machine.  The 18th century candle-and-chair device made it possible to trace a person’s shadow pretty darn close by machine. 

The subject sat in a chair.  Their face cast a shadow on a piece of parchment paper hanging next to the face.  The artist stood on the other side, traced the sitter’s side view, and later reduced it. 

Most silhouettes done by machine were not as proficient as the hand-done ones and today are less desirable.  One way to tell a machine drawing is to look for impressions left on the paper by the machine.

Profilers also made a good living selling the likeness of famous people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.  They usually created their likeness from engravings.     

Paper profilers also helped preserve the unique portraiture of historical figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Richard Wagner, Franz Liszt, and Napoleon.         

A name most often associated with professional silhouettes is Auguste Edouart.  A Frenchman who came to the United States in 1839, Edouart traveled across America cutting silhouettes of the rich and famous like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay.        

Sometimes the name of the subject or the artist is written on the silhouette.  Knowing that information adds value especially if it’s written on the silhouette itself or on a label on the back. 

As technology advanced the profile cutter was ultimately replaced by the street photographer.  The common use of photography made silhouettes obsolete.

On March 11, Garth’s Auctions in Delaware, Ohio, featured a selection of vintage silhouettes in its Early American Antiques and Decorative Arts Auction.  


Man Wearing Cap; cutout portrait; gold inked details; American 1st half-19th century; 6 inches by 4 ¾ inches;  $118.

Sir John & Lady Marjoribanks; full-length cutout portraits; most likely Auguste Edouart; Aug. 29, 1827; 16 ½ inches by 13 ¼ inches;  $235.

Man with Umbrella; full-length cutout portrait; stamped Augt. Edouart 1827; 13 ½ inches by 7 ¾ inches;  $264.    

Two Men, double full-length cutout portrait; one seated in chair other standing behind him; stamped Augt. Edouart 1827 or 1829; 12 ¾ inches high by 11 ¾ inches;  $294.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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