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Silhouette cutting is an art form that is has been practiced since ancient times. In fact, silhouettes were found in ancient Egyptian tombs walls and vases from Greece. In colonial times, it was not uncommon to see one or two silhouettes hung in colonial homes. They were all the rage from 1790 to 1840. Like stencilers, wandering silhouette artists traveled widely throughout England and America carrying their simple materials with them. A few of the more famous artists were Auguste Edouart, Moses Chapman, William Henry Brown, Henry Williams, William Doyle, Master William James Hubard, William Bache, William King, Raphaelle Peale, and Moses Williams. These men created cut-and-paste type silhouettes for their fashionable customers. Moses Williams was an ex-slave of Charles Wilson Peale. At the Philadelphia Peale Museum, he used a machine tracing device. Master Hubard who began to cut silhouettes since the age of 13 never used a tracing device or any kind of outline.
Silhouette derived its name from Etienne de Silhouette, a finance minister to King Louis XV. He lasted eight months in the position due to his conservative views on money. Because of his penny pinching ways, anything associated with this man was considered very cheap, and thus a la Silhouette. One of the earliest known silhouettes was done by Elizabeth Pyburg in late 17th century England. The subject was of William and Mary.
A silhouette cutting book Art of Cutting Groups of Figures, Flowers, Birds, &c. in Black Paper (London) was released 1815-1816 and helped solidify its popularity. The positions of the subjects (Empire style dress, classical sculpture posing) and ancient symbols of Greek columns and vases clearly demonstrated the fascination with ancient Greece.
Cut-and-paste silhouettes were the most familiar type and either full figure or bust length. Cut silhouettes were most popular in the nineteenth century. Earlier silhouettes usually were painted on ivory. Hollow-cut silhouettes were machine-made and always bust length. They were more popular in America than in England.
The type of paper the silhouette artists used was thin and black on one side and white on the other. After some paper analysis in 1999, it was determined that sometimes a black colorant consisting of bone black and prussian blue was used to coat the paper. Hollow-cut silhouettes were done most often on wove and cream colored paper. Sometimes laid paper was used. Since cutting was so popular, the type of paper used depended upon the class of the people.
The pigments used were either lamp black or India ink. Another pigment mentioned was iron gall black, a mixture of white wine vinegar, iron fillings, gall nuts, and sometimes gum arabic. It was suggested to mix beer with soot or lamp black to obtain a velvety black. India ink could be mixed with tallow smoke, pine soot, or beer.
Silhouette details were also enhanced with gouache, graphite, white or gold inks, bronze powders. These added decorations were used on eyelashes, shirt collars, and hair ribbon. Sometimes silhouettes were hand colored.
Scissors or knives were used to cut out the silhouettes. There is little mention of the type of scissors used, although Germany made scissors designed specifically for this purpose. Embroidery scissors would have been ideal since small and sharp with long handles. Even needles were used for very fine detail.
Silhouettes continue to remain popular today. A search on the internet shows countless silhouette artists offering their skills for a fee. These artists can be found at craft fairs all over the country. Of course many antiques shops and auction houses carry old silhouettes, prices ranging from $200 to as high as $15,000 for a Puffy Sleeve Artist silhouette. It is best to study silhouettes with a magnifying glass to determine new from old. Give silhouette cutting a try, it could turn out to be a new business venture for you
Puffy Sleeve Artist - 1830-1831 sold for $15,080 in 2006
Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright
Peggy McClard Antiques
Antique Silhouette Blog
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