Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Fine and Pleasing Silhouette

Over the years I have collected a fair number of silhouettes.  I like the way they look, they are readily available at antiques stores and fairs, and they are generally well priced.

For the possibly lone person reading this blog who is not familiar with the term, "silhouette" is the name for a type of highly graphic, representational image, most often (but not always) a portrait of a person in profile, where the subject is featureless and usually done in black (most often cut from paper or card) and mounted on a lighter background.  Silhouettes were a quick and inexpensive means of taking a sitter's likeness before the advent of photography, and were popular in America from the late-eighteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century.

I first started collecting silhouettes shortly after we acquired Darlington House, in the late 1990s.  Initially I was fairly indiscriminate in the silhouettes I bought, driven more by impulse than connoisseurship.  Over time, though, as I became more knowledgeable I also became more selective, focusing my buying on unusual and skillfully executed ones, in interesting period frames.

Although I still stop and admire silhouettes when I am out and about visiting dealers and shows, I only rarely buy them anymore.  I realized a number of years ago that I was on the verge of having more silhouettes than I knew what to do with.  As in all collecting, it is possible to find oneself with too much of a good thing if one isn't disciplined in one's buying.  So I put on the brakes and diverted my collecting attentions elsewhere.

One of the last silhouettes I bought is, I believe, the best in my collection.  If I had to choose only one of the silhouettes I own, this is the one I would reach for.  It is a beautifully and artistically done likeness of a young man that sits in an unusual and rare Federal-era frame.

I don't know who the artist was who cut the likeness (it is unsigned), but they were exceedingly skillfull at their craft, and the quality of their scissor-work is far superior to any other in my collection.  Whoever did it was a master (or mistress) at their art.  I bought the silhouette from an antiques dealer in western Massachusetts who said that he had bought it at a local auction.  That's all I know about its history or provenance.

Judging from the sitter's clothes and the style of the frame, I suspect that the silhouette was done in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the heyday of silhouettes' popularity.

A detail of the frame

The frame is an unusual one.  Most silhouettes that I see are framed in lacquered papier-mâché frames, similar to the frame of the miniature painting of what I suspect is a China Trade merchant that I posted about recently.  I've also seen silhouettes that are framed more conventionally, in square or rectangular wood or metal gilt frames.  I'm not aware of seeing one framed as this young man is, though, in an entirely wood, flat frame made of mahogany and decorated with an inlay border around the perimeter.  Given its quality I suspect the frame was made by a cabinetmaker, which would explain why it has a particularly fine hanging hook on it as opposed to a more conventional and plainer hanging ring seen on picture frames of this period.  The frame appears to be in its original, untouched finish.  Although I think it would look better if I had it refinished—the surface has darkened and dulled considerably over time—I am going to leave it just the way it is, for reasons that are well known to those of us who watch Antiques Road Show with any regularity.

All in all I am quite pleased to have this little silhouette, and I feel most fortunate to own it.

Tell me, do you own any silhouettes?

Photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. Sadly, I do not have any silhouettes but I collect Swedish Gustavian and Empire furnishings, so they would be a great compliment to my collection. And I agree that the frame on your example is exceptional.

  2. Mother had ours done as children in the 50's, in Savannah, Ga.

  3. I have a silhouette of myself when I was a little girl. It's stashed away somewhere in a mislaid scrapbook. Last year, I tried in vain to find it. You've inspired me to look again.

  4. No silhouettes here and I've never spelled that word before...rather tricky!

    Your miniature has age and I imagine grouped together a collection like this would be fun to study.

  5. Yes, but must it is a modern one that surely would make Reggie shudder. A double portrait from Disneyland of the mister and myself in a tacky plastic frame, I had it ensconced in an oval 19th century gilt one.

  6. A fine and pleasing post, Reggie. Unfortunately, I do not own a silhouette but you tempt me.

  7. Hi Reggie,
    Just wanted to let you know, I am hosting a Scandinavian Design Book giveaway over at Northern Light.
    You might be interested.. ?

    Northern Light

  8. Your silhouette is charming, as is Pompey. Why don't you combine the two and have Pompey immortalised in silhouette fashion? It would be different.

    David :-)

  9. I was fascinated to discover the origin of the name - Etienne de Silhouette, unfortunate finance minister of Louis XV, 1760, taxed mercilessly and cut state spending so much that 'à la Silhouette' became slang for 'cheap' when inexpensive, cut-out portraits were all the rage - and 'portraits à la Silhouette' made his name immortal.

  10. Another great example from you collection. The picked-out frills on the cravat and loose strands of hair are unusual in their detail. Happy hunting!

  11. You have piqued my curiosity, so I hope someday you'll give a peek at your entire collection. I have collected a handful of fairly old silhouettes (displayed in the powder room!), but have never seen a frame as terrific as yours. Have you purchased Emma Rutherford's book Silhouette: the Art of Shadow? I'm looking forward to reading it. If you have any other references you'd recommend, I'd be most grateful.

  12. I own one silhouette, but mine is reverse-painted on glass, rather than cut out of paper. It is a portrait of a young man (maybe preparing to go off to college or into the world?) From his hairstyle, collar, and tie, I would guess the likeness was done in the late 1840s. It has a simple verre eglomise oval surround and a gold-lined black frame. It's a pretty pedestrian silhouette, but I like it. Do you display yours on a wall together, or scattered around the house?

  13. TDC: I would imagine that a scattering of silhouettes would look most pleasing amongst your collection of Gustavian furniture and effects.

    Anon 9:12: Yes, the art continues to this day. I have one done in the early 1990s of a dear god-daughter of mine, that I treasure. On a different note, I am also a fan of Kara Walker's rather mind-bending silhouette art, too.

    Tess: Oh, it will be a pleasure when you find it! I regret that I do not have a pastel done of me as a boy of 10 or so wearing a red turtleneck that MD had done in the 1960s. She commissioned ones of each of her children by a "lady artist" who specialized in such things, and hung them in our dining room in a group, as was the fashion on the East coast at the time.

    Hostess: Yes, it is a bit tricky to spell, isn't it?

    VoiceTalk: I am sure yours gives you great pleasure, which is the point of it all, don't you think?

    Blue: Watch out, the temptation can easily become an obsession!

    Narasha: Thanks, I hope it is a success.

    Lord Cowell: That is an excellent idea, thank you!

    Ashley Hicks: Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Your lesson here is a most excellent one, and I thank you for enlightening my readers with your knowledge. Do you collect silhouettes, by chance?

    Aestheticus: Thank you, such praise from the likes of you is most encouraging and heartening.

    T&CM: Silhouettes are perfectly sized for such little rooms as you describe, an excellent place to hang them. I am not familiar with the book you reference and must look into remedying that. Thank you.

    Anon 7:39: You describe a most charming silhouette, I am sure it is a delight. At the moment ours are rather scattered, but they have been grouped together at one point, too. Either way, I find them charming. Thank you for your comment.

  14. I have lovely silhouettes of my mother and grandparents. They must've been done in the 1940's probably in a department store. My grandfather has a pipe in his mouth and they are all quite charming.

  15. I have two. One is an antique. My favorite is one that I had done of my littlest darling when she was only five. It perfectly captured that pert little nose and profile.

  16. I love silhouettes and as a matter of fact am just having my sister and mine from when we were little framed - unfortunately they did not have such lovely frames as yours.

  17. Yes, I own several silhouettes, notably a few from the 1920s, when there was a revival. Enormously charming, though not nearly as marvelous as the early 19th century variety. I also commissioned a double silhouette of myself and my now-former spouse, which is lovely but remains in storage. Where does one put double portraits when one remarries?

  18. Your silhouette is wonderful, such a treasure. I've always admired them for their simple beauty and delicate artistry but haven't acquired any yet. Maybe one day...
    xo J~

  19. If you like silhouettes, you should check out silhouette animation. The most famous is Lotte Reiniger; quite a bit of her work is on DVD and on Youtube, such as her Hansel and Gretel (from around 1955):

  20. Christian Dior said, with regard to fashion, "It's all in the silhouette."

  21. I have a somewhat battered old silhouette which I showed in my Valentine's Day posting - take a peek.


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