From the Shades

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the silhouette portraits of King William III and Mary II mark an interesting shift in the techniques of representation. Shadows on glass or plaster were filled with lampblack to present an abstracted contour of a person. The English called these portraits “shades.” Miniature portraits were the rage of the eighteenth century, and these new shadow portraits were cheap enough to be within reach of the rising middle class. By 1720, the practice had spread to France and the colonies in America creating a fad of staggering proportions.

The French name of “silhouette” stuck, for tongue-in-cheek reasons. Etienne de Silhouette was Louis XV’s finance minister, a man known for his thrift. His economic policies sent many examples of the gold and silversmith’s art to the smelter, to be reduced to the metal they contained. Early examples of silhouettes in France and England were often painted, not with facial features but with colorful uniforms making them a inexpensive addition to carefully wrought paintings of popular miniaturists, who did silhouettes when times were slow. The early American adopters of the form took a different approach— cut paper. Anyone with a pair of scissors and piece of paper could create a silhouette. Because black paper was scarce, the early outlines were often mounted in frames backed with black cloth to create contrast. However, in order to accurately reproduce the contours of the human shadow in small size, mechanical drawing aids were often employed.

The pantograph used to reduce silhouettes to miniatures may have its roots in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing machines. Christoph Scheiner— a German Jesuit astronomer and mathematician involved in controversy with Galileo over the discovery of sunspots— invented the pantograph in 1630 to mathematically scale drawings. Blending art and science to reproduce images accelerated in the early nineteenth century. But it cannot be forgotten that most of these shadowy pursuits were inextricably linked to commerce, and the creation of an image to sell.

Silhouettes were a popular personal artifact, a keepsake image. Like more expensive miniature paintings, silhouettes could be carried about as a reminder. Robert Burns wrote his girlfriend, Agnes Craig M’Lehose (“Clarinda”) to thank her for posing for a silhouette saying “I want it for a breast-pin, to wear next my heart.” Portable reproductions of images found great favor among increasingly mobile populations, and the creation and sale of them was big business. John Miers, the silhouettist who preserved the image of M’Lehose and Burns was born in Leeds, but toured through Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh before setting up a profitable image-making shop in London in 1788.

Examined in this regard, the early photographic experiments of Thomas Wedgwood and Humpry Davy make more sense. “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” (emphasis mine) was published in 1802 as a process with possible commercial ends— a way to cash in on the boom in silhouette images. Wedgwood and Davy failed because all their images eventually turned completely black.

The relative ease with which silhouettes could be created brought portraiture to a public hungry for images. Charles Willson Peale, an American painter, miniaturist, and sihouettist, carried his miniature case to the battlefield while a member of the Pennsylvania militia to paint likenesses of his fellow officers, and painted the first official portrait of George Washington to commemorate the victories at Princeton and Trenton. Peale later trained his brother Joseph, a nephew, and his sons in painting and turned over his business making miniatures to his brother in order to concentrate on his newly founded Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia.

Silhouettes, because of the accuracy of their reproduction, fascinated early natural scientists. A key factor in the proliferation of silhouettes and of natural history may have been the desire to match outsides with insides— a pursuit perhaps best exemplified by Johann Caspar Lavater. Essays on Physiognomy was first published in the 1770s and reproduced in numerous cheap knock-offs throughout the early nineteenth century. From its silhouette illustrations sprang other pseudo-sciences like phrenology seeking to find correlation between appearance and identity. Illustrated books catalogued both men and nature, perhaps reaching their peak in the monumental 18 volume Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1797.

The silhouettist’s legacy was short lived, though Lavater’s attempts toward a taxonomy of identity using silhouette images anticipates the nineteenth century drive to classify people and create categories based on appearance— the birth of a new conception of race. In silhouette, everyone is black— but these shadows were filled-in soon after the invention of photography.