In this era of smart-phone cameras and Instagram, no one thinks twice about capturing a friend's likeness to share. But before the invention of photography, a portrait usually required an artist.
In the mid-18th-early 19th c., profiles or shades – what we today call silhouettes – became a fashionable alternative. Deftly cut from black paper or cards and pasted onto a pale background, these profile-portraits were not only faster to create and less expensive than a painted portrait, but also reflected the growing influence of classical art, and the profiles found on ancient Greek and Roman coins.
With the aid of a bright light, profiles could also be created by amateurs at home, with the shadow-outline either cut from paper or filled in with ink. While the results seldom had the nuances that a skilled profile-cutter could create, they were still better than nothing, and had the additional advantage of being a kind of combined parlor entertainment and genteel accomplishment.
This charming double-portrait from around 1832-35 shows two sisters or friends creating this kind of silhouette. One sits still while the other traces her profile on the paper pinned to the wall. Yet the now-unknown artist is playing with very notion of portraits, for the girl who is tracing the profile is the one shown by the painter in profile. It's a sophisticated conceit for a painter with little academic training, and the result is an original and delightful way to portray both girls.
How did the girl in blue achieve such perfectly poufy sleeves? Undoubtedly she was wearing a pair of sleeve puffs on her upper arms.
An aside: the term "silhouette" comes from the Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767). He wasn't the inventor of the process, but a French Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV. His belt-tightening economic policies, brought on by the credit crisis caused by France's costly involvement in the Seven Years War, made him extremely unpopular, and also made his name synonymous with anything that was second-rate or done cheaply. In the early 19th c., it became attached to the paper-cut profiles, which are still called silhouettes today.
Above: Taking a Profile, artist unidentified. American, probably 1832-1837. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection, Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.