American Silhouettes of the 18th and 19th Centuries
From my personal collection
Silhouettes are highly collectible, but they scare people. It is hard to know what is an early one and what is a reproduction or a 20th century silhouette. Hopefully, this blog will give you an overview of what to look for.
Etienne de Silhouette was a Finance Minister in France in the 18th century, and an amateur artist. He was also known to be very cheap. Because of his reputation, these inexpensive profile portraits that he and others produced became know as "silhouettes".
19th century American silhouettes are, for the most part, profile portraits, chest up, in black on a lighter background. There are full-body silhouettes,
and also, rarely, family scenes with several people, pets, household objects and/or landscapes.
The photo to the left is from my personal collection. Below is courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The heyday of the silhouette in America was from about 1790 until 1840. After 1840 photography became available. Daguerreotypes (1840-60) and tintypes (1860-70) became available for those who wanted a likeness of a loved one.
Interest in collecting hand created silhouettes emerged in the 1920s and after that many silhouettes were created - some intended as fakes - but most were just the 20th century version of them. How to tell the difference?
It's down to the details.
Dating a Silhouette
The way to date a silhouette, unless created to deceive, is by the clothing and hair of the subject. There are references that detail the subtle changes in clothing in America from the beginning to the end of this period. The book Silhouettes in America, 17790-1840, A Collectors' Guide by Blume J. Rifken, 1987, Paradigm Press, Burlington VT., describes these subtleties in drawings and descriptions in 10 year blocks.
This interesting silhouette, recently sold by me on this website, shows an older woman in a puffy hat with a lace trimmed scarf around her neck indicating an early period - 1790 to 1800. This piece is also interesting because of the addition of watercolor detail, but more about that later.
Compare it to the one at the left - from my personal collection - the lady has a ruffle at the neck and her hair is piled up onto her head, secured with a comb, with ringlets around her face. This style was more typical in the 1810-20 period.
Men's styles also changed over this period of time. In the late 1700s men wore their hair long, tied in the back. In the 1800s it was short - often brushed forward. Styles in coats, collars, cravats and shirts changed over this period, as did women's dresses.
Compare the two cited above to the one at the right. This is a cut silhouette ca 1920. (Photo courtesy of Worthpoint.com). The clothing is clearly early 20th century.
A really good reference book on the subject of clothing in this period is: 19th Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston, Thames & Hudson, 2016. While it is written about styles in England at the time, it is reflective of styles in America - perhaps with a 10 year delay.
Types of Silhouettes
There are three types of silhouettes: hollow-cut, cut and pasted, or painted. No one type is intrinsically more valuable than another, although some dealers will say that hollow-cut ones are more desirable. The value depends on the quality of the piece - its detail and the evenness of its quality, not how it was made.
These silhouettes are cut-outs of a light colored paper which are then placed on a black background - either paper or cloth, revealing the image. The artist cuts the image into the paper and then removes it so that the background shows the black image.
The silhouette at the right it clearly hollow-cut. Note how the beige paper is somewhat wrinkly and stands out from the black paper background. Most of this type of silhouette were created with the help of a tracing device called a Pantograph, which was invented in the 1600s and was readily available in the 19th century.
Hollow cut silhouettes are sometimes embellished with paint to depict hair, eyelashes, and other elements which would be difficult to cut. This one is very simple, with hallmarked paper, and crudely painted oval surround.
Cut and Pasted
In this type the image is cut out of paper and pasted onto a plain background.
The silhouette on the left (from my personal collection) was cut out of black paper and then pasted onto the orange background. The artist added detail to the cut out form with white watercolor paint to show his hair and clothing. The Pantograph was sometimes used, but most often they were cut freehand.
Sometimes these cut-outs were pasted on elaborately painted backgrounds to depict a room or landscape.
The silhouette at the right (photo courtesy of pinterest.com) shows a cut out of a girl with a basket of flowers on a stylized painted background of her garden. Often the backgrounds were of rooms in the subject's home or a scene that suggests the subject's occupation or interests.
Painted silhouettes were created with black paint on a lighter background. These were often highly detailed because of the relative ease of painting detail vs cutting it out. These were not as common as the other types, probably because the purchaser would prefer a miniature portrait rather than a profile in black if the creator had some artistic talent.
Consider this silhouette shown at the beginning of this blog. The only thing that makes it a silhouette vs a miniature portrait is the fact the face in a black profile. This is a painted silhouette, and the artist had considerable talent in painting the detail of her clothing.
Other detail added to painted silhouettes was often less obvious, but none the less skilled.
Watercolor was sometimes added. "Bronzing" or the use of gold paint to provide detail were common ways of enhancing painted silhouettes.
This little girl (photo from my own collection) is a great example of watercolor detail that still maintains the silhouette genre. Note the white paint detail on her hair, the buckle on her dress. I sold this piece some time ago and now wish I hadn't.
This gentleman has tremendous detail and is a good example of "bronzing". The detail is subtle but evident throughout. It was recently sold on this website and was painted by one of the finest silhouette artists who ever painted - John Meirs, an Englishman.
Every aspect of this image is enhanced by gold paint, making it far more interesting than one that has no embellishment.
Which brings me to the next important question about value.
Value of Silhouettes
As with all antiques, value is whatever someone is willing to pay. But what makes one silhouette more valuable or desirable than another?
Condition, age, provenance and appeal all play an important role in value. Another equally important factor for a silhouette is detail.
How finely cut is it? Has the artist embellished it with detail?
This silhouette from my collection is hollow cut, but the artist has painted detail onto the light paper - her hair, the ruffle at her neck, her eyelash.
The gentleman at left has painted hair, eyelashes, collar, shirt and tie, (from my collection).
The foxing at the bottom of the image diminishes the value somewhat, but it is still an interesting and well executed silhouette. And it is in the original frame, which also can add, although not always, to its value.
Provenance can enhance the value. Where it came from, who owned it, who painted it, if known, will add to a collector's interest.
Sometimes, rarely, they are signed by the artist, The one at the right, my own collection, is signed "Doyle", a well documented artist from the early 1800s.
When making a decision to buy a silhouette, how much it appeals to you is probably the ultimate decider. I have owned several silhouettes which were not great examples, but which I found charming.
How to Determine Fakes
I've been fooled more than once. If something is intentionally fraudulent it may be impossible to determine without scientific testing of the paper and ink used to assess age.
But there are less elegant attempts at faking which are easier to spot.
The first silhouette I ever bought was a small, simple profile of a gentleman in a tiny frame which I paid very little for, but which I liked. I showed it to a knowledgable friend proudly. He told me, without a second's hesitation that it was a fake. So obvious, but not to me at the time. It was actually a photograph of an early one, framed in an old frame! You should take a loupe with you to shows and auctions to examine silhouettes. I have seen printed ones - but the pixels are obvious under a loupe.
Improper detail - clothing of the wrong period, hairstyles wrong, are a big give-away. Modern paper and paint are also a signs, although spotting them is not always easy.
The best advice I have is to purchase only from a reputable dealer who is knowledgable in silhouettes and who will happily take a return if proven wrong.
It's All in the Eye of the Beholder
Buy what you love, no matter the value - as long as it's not a fake. This is one of my favorites (my collection):
I love her pensive expression, her white painted ringlets, her lace shawl and her blue dress. A highly embellished silhouette, to be sure.
Silhouettes are a fascinating category of antiques. They were the primary way that everyman could have an image of a loved one before the advent of photography. They were usually very cheap to purchase from itinerant artists, often unframed and kept pressed between pages of the family bible. The fact that so many have survived attests to how common they were, but also how important they were to people. I love them, and I hope you do too.