Silhouettes vs. Photography

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

I love when different aspects of history intervene with each other. As my specialty is art history, I’m especially curious when developments or movements in art affect the ones preceding them—as seems to have happened when photography’s advent and popularity coincided with the waning of silhouettes as a popular form of portraiture.

Silhouettes came into fashion in the 18th century. Those skilled in the art form would travel around making silhouettes mostly for people who could not afford painted portraits. They were popular regardless of income and many wealthier people would commission silhouettes. A silhouette—a “shade” or “profile”—could be made in any media: painted, drawn, sewn, or cut from paper, this last method the most popular. The sitter’s image could be made freehand with scissors cutting paper, or by using light to trace a shadow. The cut out paper shape would then be pasted onto contrasting paper to make it stand out. What made this type of portraiture so popular was its convenience—almost anyone could do it in a few minutes—and at low cost. However, the same could be said of photography, even early photography. Although there was an initial set up cost to purchase or make a camera, the chemicals to develop the images were inexpensive and widely available. A photographer could take many portraits in a day. Photography, though, also had the irresistible advantage of capturing a person’s true likeness.

The MHS has a great collection of silhouettes, a few of my favorites shown below. I’ll start with the Adams Family which features silhouettes from 1829 of Louisa Catherine Adams (1775–1852), John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), John Adams (1803–1834), Mary Louisa Adams (1828–1859), Mary Catherine Hellen Adams (1806–1870), Abigail Smith Adams (1744–1818), and Mary Roberdeau (1774-?).  

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper are seven black cut outs of human profiles. Details that can be seen around the outside of the cut out are clothing outlines, chins, lips, noses, foreheads, hair, and hats. Six are adults, three in a row vertically side by side, with one child between the top four. Beside each one in black handwritten ink is a name.
Family of John Quincy Adams, Master Hankes, 1829.

I also find this silhouette of Mrs. John Chadwick and two daughters endearing as the figures are full-bodied, showing off their fashionable clothes. It’s also touching that Mrs. Chadwick and her daughters appear to be holding hands. Another thing I love about this silhouette is that its creator lightly embellished the black cutout with a whitewash to highlight some of the details. You can see those details when you enlarge the online image here.

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper are three figures cut out in black paper in silhouette. One adult woman and two girl children, one on each side of the woman. Details that can be seen around the outside of the figures is clothing, hair, hats, bows, glasses, nose, forehead, chin, lips, and feet. On top of the black paper are very light white details on the clothing, hair, shoes, glasses, and arms. In the upper left corner of the white paper is written in pencil, “Mrs. John Chadwick + daughters. 1833”
Silhouette of Mrs. John Chadwick and daughters, black paper with Chinese white details and ink wash on white cardstock, unidentified artist, 1833.

And the last silhouette I’ll share is part of the ongoing exhibition, Our Favorite Things—a silhouette of Lucy Flucker Knox from 1790. Of course, the towering hairdo and gravity-defying hat make this image stand out from the other more traditional silhouettes in the MHS collection, which is why I want to share it.

Color photograph of white paper discolored with age. On the paper is a single cut out figure on black paper. She is a woman from what can be seen of her hair, clothes, chin, lips, nose eyelashes, forehead, and she is seated on a chair. Over the black paper is a white wash that gives details to her hair, arm, and clothes. Her hair is strikingly tall, and a hat isn’t resting on her head, so much as placed on top of her hair.
Silhouette of Lucy Flucker Knox, circa 1790.

To see more silhouettes in the MHS collection see this search here.