AGE OF THE SILHOUETTE 1760-1870: Our SHADEY HistoryMiniature portraits had been the rage of aristocracy whom had worn portraits as jewellery since at least the 15th century. But for 300 years, the expense required for a full colour likeness to be commissioned had restricted that indulgence to the wealthy and kept the ordinary person from acquiring a portable likeness of their loved ones.
In the late 1700’s, shade portraits became popular with the general population because it represented a cheaper alternative to full colour portraits. Although the black profile was made popular by the masses, its fashionable desirability soon reached across income levels back to the Aristocracy. Wealthy patrons commissioned silhouettes to be painted and encrusted with precious stones in jewellery. 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, Etienne 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 cutter, 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, a technique called Verre Églomisé.
3)Hollow cut, usually with the aid of a machine but, very rarely by hand. In this process the figure is cut away from the paper thereby leaving a nega tive image. The backed with a contrasting colour of paper or fabric.
4)Cut freehand with scissors or knives and then pasted to a contrasting (usually light-colored) background. This form of silhouette was 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 jewellery, lace collars, and elaborate hairstyles. In America especially, a group of mostly unidentified artists cut wonderfully naive 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 water-colour backgrounds which bring even more attention to the regal simplicity of the shade portrait itself
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