Saturday, August 21, 2010

Likeness in Profile

Art and history can often be found in the most surprising places. For example, while driving along the interstate recently, I spotted a silhouette... we've all seen her - she may be the most commonly reproduced silhouette of our time - mud flap girl! Although this may seem to some a modern and novel way to depict a beautiful woman, this type of illustration has a long history and was once a very popular form of low-cost portraiture.

The Alice's collection holds a lovely group of thirty slightly more sophisticated silhouettes of men, women and children, collected by Alice in the early 20th century. The silhouettes are displayed together in the Sheraton Room on the second floor. They are wonderful little gems, exhibited in a wide variety of metal and wooden frames. Most are portraits of unnamed persons, but we know who a few of the people are - Benjamin Franklin, Martha Washington, John Ruskin, Aaron Burr, you may not recognize other names; Oscar Dinsmore-Davis (age 10 months and four days,) Margaret Davidson (her daughter was a poetic prodigy who died quite young,) Lucretia Platt, Alexander Potter, Eugenie (which may be the likeness of Empress Eugenie - wife of Napoleon III, and the last Empress of the French.)

Eugenie, 1870

The silhouette collection runs the gamut of the ways people were pictured - from the view of only the head, to full body profiles. One of the latter method depicts Alexander Potter and his dog. The Potter silhouette was created in 1829 by Auguste Amant Constant Fidéle Edouart (1789-1861.) Mr. Potter's and his dog's silhouettes were cut out of black paper and mounted on white paper, on which a split rail fence was lightly painted. The riding crop he holds is partly of cut paper and partly painted.

Alexander Potter by Aug. Edouart 1829 photo: PHOTOPIA/Shaun Heffernan

On the back of our Edouart silhouette is the following printed label,

Executed by Mons. Edouart,
Who begs to observe, that his Likenesses are produced by the Scissors alone, and are preferable to any taken by Machines, inasmuch as by the above method, the expression of the Passions, and peculiarities of Character, are brought into action, in a style which has not hitherto been attempted by any other Artist..."

The methods used to create these images also varied widely, some were cut black silhouettes, mounted on white paper (which may be blank, or painted, or lithographed with a background scene) - some had the white paper as the cut silhouette which was then mounted on black - still others were produced by painting directly on glass, wax, plaster, or even ivory.

Auguste Edouart began cutting silhouettes in 1825 to prove an argument - he tells a story of "bustling the old father into a proper position, seizing a pair of scissors from a work basket, blacking a quickly torn piece of paper with the candle snuffers, and snipping a silhouette infinitely superior to the mechanical shade the family had been commending. It was at once approved of and found so like, that the ladies changed their teasing and ironical tone to praises, and begged me to take their mother's likeness, which I did with the same facility and exactness." Clearly Edouart was somewhat arrogant, but many others admired his work.

Auguste Edouart self portrait

Edouart was born in Dunkirk, France, fought valiantly in Napoleon's army and was decorated. He later moved to England where he traveled the country cutting portraits of British and French nobility. He came to the U.S. in 1839, just a few months before the daguerreotype made it to America, and stayed for ten years cutting silhouettes of Presidents and well-known Americans. On the return journey his ship sank and most of the folios full of copies of his thousands of silhouettes were lost. It is said that he never produced another after that ill-fated day.

Tracing the shadow of a figure thrown onto the wall was a means of portraiture employed as early as the Greek culture. This method did not receive the name "silhouette" until the 18th century, when it was named for a French finance minister who enjoyed creating likenesses made of cut paper... an inexpensive and fun method of portraiture. Other terms include; shade, scissor writing, paper profiles, paper cuts, black shades (a term Edouart hated!,) shadows, and profiles. The most famous English silhouette artist was John Miers (1756-1821.) Alice Miner also acquired a Miers silhouette of the head of a young woman created with black ink on gessoed plaster.

Head of a young woman by Miers, 19th century

Silhouettes became less prominent with the invention of the camera, rapidly losing popularity in the United States after 1840. They continued to be a type of artwork found at fairs and tourist sites for much of the 20th century, and silhouette artists can still be found today, selling their unique brand of portraiture as a more specialized and nostalgic niche item. If you might be thinking of becoming a silhouette artist, you would do well to visit The Alice and study our collection!

Tours are at 10:00, noon, and 2:00 Tuesday - Saturday.