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HomeContentsThemes > Silhouette


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684.01   Improving content on photographic techniques
684.02   Silhouettes
684.03   Drawing silhouettes
684.04   Phrenology proved, illustrated, and applied (1838)
The silhouette as a graphical element
684.05   The silhouette as a graphic element within photography
This theme includes example sections and will be revised and added to as we proceed. Suggestions for additions, improvements and the correction of factual errors are always appreciated. 
Status: Collect > Document > Analyse > Improve
Information requests 
684.01   Drawing and optical devices >  Improving content on photographic techniques 
We are seeking to expand the themes covering photographic techniques and processes. These sections will include:
  • Invention of the process
  • Any related patents
  • Trade literature
  • Contemporary advertisements and announcements of the innovation
  • A description of the process and its variants
  • Historical examples and details of where examples can be located in public collections
  • Contemporary examples by photographers using the exact process.
Conservation will not initially be included but may be in the future if required.
684.02   Drawing and optical devices >  Silhouettes 
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A silhouette, profiles or shades are a featureless image that use a single colour, normally black, to outline and fill in the shape of a person, object or scene.[1] The term is normally applied to a cut-out made from black card and was popular from the middle of the eighteenth century for creating bust and full length portraits. An alternative method was to paint the outline directly on paper and then fill it in.  
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J. Heinrich Schwarz: Silhouette album pages (ca. 1787) 
The technique was known in the Classical World and in one ancient text Pliny the Elder relates a story of Butades of Corinth and how it was the origin of painting:
Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp [umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit]. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.[2]
The silhouette gave detail of the outline but it was the Physionotrace that gave detail to the featureless silhouette. Whilst the cut-card silhouette required manual dexterity with scissors and the painted silhouette an equally steady hand with a brush the introduction of photography allowed for other types of portrait than the profile.
The speed at which silhouettes could be prepared was astounding as a contemporary account in the The New York Mirror of 1839 said:
Silhouette likenesses.—The apartments of Monsieur Edouard in Broadway, nearly opposite the Apollo Gallery, are well worth a visit. The rapidity with which the artist executes full length, characteristic profiles, is truly astonishing. In two minutes, he will cut you a likeness that shall be generally recognized by your acquaintances. Among his collection will be found some capital outlines of Edward Irving, the eccentric preacher, representing him in all the various attitudes, in which he was accustomed to address his audience. Likenesses of Sir Walter Scott, and many of the most distinguished characters in England may also be seen in the exhibition.[3]
In the story "Young Mr. Nightingale" by Edward Dutton Cook one of the characters, Fane Maulevever, makes a silhouette:
He had produced from his pocket a pair of scissors and a scrap of paper. And, while still looking at me, he was snipping at this paper, holding it up to the light, then snipping it again, after further gaze at me. He was a most extraordinary man. He had already been too much for Kem. She was stricken dumb, and, as she wildly pared potatoes, her face wore almost an insane expression.
"I call that a fair portrait," said the stranger, and he held up a black shade of myself, placed against a white card for its better exhibition. He had been cutting out my silhouette. Kem was roused from apathy, and as soon as her amazement permitted her speech, she pronounced the portrait perfect, said she should have known it anywhere, and evidently formed forthwith a more favourable opinion of our visitor than she had previously entertained. I felt that the black shade resembled me, though I was but indifferently acquainted with the conformation of my own profile. Still it exhibited a boy with a blunt nose, a sharp chin, a mass of thick untidy hair, and a patch of white to represent my collar. It was clearly my likeness.
"You're an artist, sir," I said, diffidently.[4]
Although named after Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767)[5] he did not produce silhouettes and the origins of the word is linked to when he was Controller-General (Finance chief) in France for eight months in 1759. He was seen as penny-pinching and cheap - as "profiles" or "shades" were substitute for more expensive paintings and sculpture his name was used as a subject of ridicule. The following passage from 1844 gives the context.
The name silhouette has been said to be derived from Etienne de Silhouette, French minister of finance in 1759. It appears that several parsimonious fashions introduced during his administration, in order, by severe economy, to remedy the evils of a war that had just terminated, were called, after this minister, à la Silhouette; and that the name has continued to be applied to one of them,—the use of profiles in shade.[6]
As with most technological innovations the silhouette did not die out instantaneously with the introduction of photography and there are some intriguing cross-over images where daguerreotypes were made to copy pre-existing silhouettes.  
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Daguerreotype copies of silhouettes 
   Drawing and optical devices Silhouettes 
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684.03   Drawing and optical devices >  Drawing silhouettes 
   Drawing and optical devices Silhouettes 
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684.04   Drawing and optical devices >  Phrenology proved, illustrated, and applied (1838) 
This contemporary account of the skills in making silhouettes was used as evidence for phrenology by its adherents. In one of the many books by Orson Squire Fowler and Lorenzo Niles Fowler, two brothes who were pivotal in bringing phrenology to the public in mid-nineteenth century America,[7] they gave an account of Mr. Wm. H. Brown who had an uncanny ability to draw silhouettes from memory.
At the funeral of a senator, he [Mr. Wm. H. Brown] saw Martin Van Buren; and several days after, from memory alone, he cut a full-length miniature likeness of him from black paper, which, when pasted upon a white card, represented the original to the very life; so much so, indeed, that every person who entered the office, and who had previously seen Mr. V. B., recognised it immediately: and hundreds of copies of it were soon sold. When gentlemen called upon Mr. B. for the profiles of their friends, or servants for those of their masters, they were invariably directed to select them from a large pack, and they were never at a loss in deciding upon the right pictures. With such facility and despatch was the artist enabled to produce these likenesses, that he could cut and finish from seventy-five to one hundred in a day.
While in Boston, Mr. B. was taken to the Exchange, where six individuals were pointed out to him in succession. Several hours afterwards, he was requested to cut their profiles promiscuously, they not being present; and to the astonishment and admiration of all present, so successfully and accurately did he perform the task, that all who knew the originals, were enabled immediately to recognise the likeness of each as it was produced. During an absence of two years from B., a gentleman whose profile he had cut, had deceased, and no copy of his picture could be found. Anxious to retain, if possible, so striking a token of remembrance of him, the friends of the deceased applied to Mr. B. to cut a new one from memory: and so perfectly did he reproduce the likeness, that they were no less gratified than astonished at the masterly power of the artist.
Astonishing, however, as these talents in Mr. B. may appear, they were, nevertheless, all distinctly pointed out by the writer at his first interview with him: to which fact Mr. B. himself, who was then a disbeliever in phrenology, as well as several others who were present, will at any time testify. He then described Mr. B., for example, as able, for almost any length of time, to retain in his mind a distinct and perfectly accurate impression of the looks of persons, machines, &c. which he had once seen, and, at pleasure, to transfer their appearance to paper; and declared that, in drawing, profile cutting, &c., he had no equal.[8]
The silhouette as a graphical element 
684.05   Drawing and optical devices >  The silhouette as a graphic element within photography 
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  1. Λ For a history of silhouettes - Emma Rutherford, 2009, Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow, (Rizzoli)
    For an early account - Auguste Edouart, 1835, A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, (London: Longman and Company) and there is another book on the work of Auguste Edouart - Andrew Oliver, 1977, Auguste Edouart's Silhouettes of Eminent Americans 1839-1844, (Charlottesville: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian) 
  2. Λ Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book XXXV, Chapter 15 
  3. Λ "Silhouette likenesses", September 28, 1839, The New York Mirror, p. 111 
  4. Λ Edward Dutton Cook, "Young Mr. Nightingale", All the Year Round, 7 June 1873, p. 126 
  5. Λ Étienne de Silhouette - Wikipedia
    (Accessed: 10 May 2014)Étienne_de_Silhouette 
  6. Λ "Silhouette", 1844, The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, (Charles Knight / Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) vol. 22, p. 8 
  7. Λ Madeleine B. Stern, 1971, Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers, (University of Oklahoma Press) 
  8. Λ Orson Squire Fowler, Lorenzo Niles Fowler & Samuel Kirkham, 1838, Phrenology proved, illustrated, and applied: accompanied by a chart, embracing an analysis of the primary mental powers ... together with a view of the moral and theological bearing of the science, (At the Phrenological Rooms) p. 299


HomeContents > Further research

General reading 
1839, 28 September, ‘Silhouette likenesses‘, The New York Mirror, p. 111 [Δ
1844, The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, (Charles Knight / Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge) ["Silhouette", vol. 22, p. 8] [Δ
Benes, Peter, 1994, ‘Machine-Assisted Portrait and Profile Imaging in New England after 1803‘, in 1994, Painting and Portrait Making in the American Northeast, Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 19, (Boston, 1994), pp. 138-150 [Δ
Cook, Edward Dutton, 1873, 7 June, ‘Young Mr. Nightingale‘, All the Year Round [Description of having a scissor-cut silhouette made, p. 126] [Δ
Edouart, Auguste, 1835, A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, (London: Longman and Company) [Δ
Fowler, Orson Squire; Fowler, Lorenzo Niles & Kirkham, Samuel, 1838, Phrenology proved, illustrated, and applied: accompanied by a chart, embracing an analysis of the primary mental powers ... together with a view of the moral and theological bearing of the science, (At the Phrenological Rooms) [Mr Brown and his silhouettes, p.299] [Δ
Knipe, Penley, 1999, ‘Shades and Shadow-Pictures: The Materials and Techniques of American Portrait Silhouettes‘, The American Institute for Conservation - The Book and Paper Group Annual, vol. 18 [Paper delivered at the Book and Paper specialty group session, AIC 27th Annual Meeting, June 8-13, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri.] [Δ
Oliver, Andrew, 1977, Auguste Edouart's Silhouettes of Eminent Americans 1839-1844, (Charlottesville: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian) [Δ
Piper, David, 1970, Shades: An Essay on English Portrait Silhouettes, (New York: Chilmark Press) [Δ
Rutherford, Emma, 2009, Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow, (Rizzoli) isbn-10: 0847830772 isbn-13: 978-0847830770 [Δ
Simms, Leonard, 1937, The Art of Silhouette Cutting, (London: Frederick Warne and Co.) [Δ
Verplank, Anne, 1996, Facing Philadelphia: The Social Functions of Silhouettes, Miniatures and Daguerreotypes, 1760-1860, (Ph.D. dissertation, College of William and Mary) [Δ
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - 
The Richard Balzer Collection 
Magic Lanterns, metamorphics, optical toys, panoramas, dioramas, peepshows, perspective and shadows. 
HomeTechniquesDrawing and optical devices > Silhouette 
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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Silhouette

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Released (March 31, 2012)
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Released (December 18, 2011)

HomeVisual indexes > Silhouette

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ThumbnailGertrude Käsebier: Silhouettes 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailJ. Heinrich Schwarz: Silhouette Album pages 
ThumbnailFrank Hurley - James Karales - Heinrich Zille - Homer Sykes 
ThumbnailDrawing and drafting aids: Silhouettes 
   Still thinking about these... 
ThumbnailGeorg Melchoir Kraus: Goethe, seine Silhouette betrachtend (1775) 
Refreshed: 18 January 2015, 08:58
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