Thursday, March 5, 2009

Antique Silhouettes

Miniature portraits had been the rage of aristocracy whom had worn portraits as jewelry since at least the 15th century. But for 300 years, the expense required for a full color likeness to be commissioned had restricted the availability to the wealthy and kept the ordinary person from acquiring portable likenesses of their loved ones. In the late 18th century, shade portraiture became popular with the masses because it represented a cheaper alternative to full color portraits. Although the black profile was made popular by the masses, its popularity soon reached across income levels back to the aristocracy. Wealthy patrons commissioned silhouettes to be painted and encrusted with precious stones in jewelry and snuff boxes. Royalty commissioned porcelain dinner services with silhouettes. Common folk filled albums with silhouette likenesses of family and friends.

Originally called "Profile Shades" or "Shadows" in England, the French coined the term à la Silhouette as a derogatory reference to Louis XV's former French Minister of Finance, Ètienne de Silhouette, who was considered a cheapskate. When de Silhouette left his government position, he reputedly retired to a farmhouse which he decorated with home-made paper cuttings. In the 19th century, the great master silhouettist, Augustin Edouart, felt that the term "shade" was derogatory to his art and began using the term "silhouettist" to describe himself. The term became popular and carried forward to today.

Antique silhouettes may be found in 4 general forms: (1) Painted on paper, card, vellum, ivory, silk, or porcelain; (2) Painted in reverse on glass; (3) Hollow cut, usually with the aid of a machine but, very rarely, by hand (for this type of silhouette the figure is cut away from the paper thereby leaving a negative image—the paper outline is then backed with a contrasting color of paper or fabric); and (4) Cut freehand with scissors or knives and then pasted to a contrasting (usually light-colored) background (referred to as cut & paste). Early 18th century profiles were all black, taking their form from the solid black shadow of the unadorned individual. Towards the end of the 18th century, artists began to distinguish their works with the barest of bronzing. As the 19th century progressed, the audience demanded more elaborate decoration and the artists obliged with embellishment that became more prominent, depicting jewelry, lace collars, and elaborate hairstyles. In America especially, a group of mostly unidentified artists cut wonderfully naïve hollow cut profiles atop painted or lithographed stock bodies. On both sides of the ocean, artists of the 19th century sometimes applied their cut or painted silhouettes on lithograph or watercolor backgrounds which bring even more attention to the regal simplicity of the shade portrait itself.

The heyday of silhouette cutting in America was 1780-1855. Antique silhouettes are fun to collect and display. You might focus your collection on silhouettes of a certain type (i.e. hollow cut heads with painted bodies), of a certain origin (i.e. American-cut), a particular artist (i.e. Edouart or Master Hubard), or of one type of sitter (children are especially popular, or perhaps ladies with large hair combs). I suggest you read as much as you can about silhouettes and look at many at antique shows and museums. Many legitimate reproductions of 19th century silhouettes were made in the first quarter of the 20th century. Now that those 20th century silhouettes have some age, they are often sold as 19th century. A collector needs to learn the tell-tale signs of reproduction silhouettes and the subtle differences between 19th and 20th century paper.

Condition is an important issue when buying any antique—antique artwork such as a silhouette is no different. Look for browning of paper (signs of acid or sun damage), water stains, foxing (small light brown spotting of the paper, likely caused by a fungal growth), brittle paper, and gluing of silhouette backing paper to acidic materials such as wood or cardboard. Although I will seldom turn down a rare silhouette in poor condition, a collector should always factor in the devaluation of any piece into the price paid for the item. The cost of even a rare silhouette must be adjusted according to its condition.

Framing is another important component of the value of an antique silhouette. Collectors prefer frames of the same period as the silhouette. An original frame in fair to poor condition is likely to help a silhouette hold its value better than a newly minted frame. If you want to reframe your antique silhouette into a new frame, consider keeping the original frame, glass and all backing to follow your silhouette into the future. It will likely increase the price you or your descendents will get for the silhouette many years down the road.

Enjoy your antique silhouettes but keep them out of direct sunlight or you will watch them become brown practically before your eyes. As with any antique and especially any antique paper, it is best to keep them in a climate controlled environment (the rule of thumb is that if the temperature and humidity keep you comfortable, your antiques will be comfortable) and away from outside walls. I realize that it isn’t practical for most home decorating to avoid hanging any artwork on outer walls, but try to avoid walls that tend to heat up on a regular basis (such as those which absorb hot afternoon sun). Hanging antique paper artwork in a bathroom is an invitation for moisture and mildew damage.

Visit for a list of recommended books (some of which I offer for sale) and more information about silhouettes and silhouette artists. I am very excited about a new silhouette book that is due to be released in the United States in September, 2009. I’ll be carrying the new book through my website and encourage you to order one as soon as it is available!