Viewed in their own heyday as temporary, of varying or poor quality and throwaway, it is no wonder that the very insignificance of the silhouette portrait has become part of its status in art history. Termed ‘the poor man’s portrait’, they are generally seen as fusty and dull, with (literally) none of the colour of their wall-companions.

A few years ago, however, their graphic and gothic qualities began to be explored. Suddenly, the silhouette was fashionable. Osborne and Little brought out new flock wallpaper – a repetitive pattern of eighteenth century heads crowding the walls for dramatic effect. Coat hooks, ceramics, bed linen – the new i-pod advertised using dancing figures all silhouetted – the pared-down outline was everywhere. The Times, in an article entitled ‘What a contrast’ (November 2009), stated that ‘Black silhouettes on white are back’.

Contemporary illustrators and film directors also found inspiration in the silhouette. The implications of a shadow, and its associations with ghosts and the Underworld, naturally align silhouettes with a visual ‘dark side’. Peter Schlemihl and Peter Pan warn us from childhood that to lose one’s shadow is to lose one’s soul – the shadow is what makes us whole. It is no wonder that the modern mind sees silhouettes as gothic and creepy – generations of lost souls doomed to hang on the wall of the junk shop. The drama of the silhouette and its unsettling connotations have been utilised to great effect by directors such as Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1996) and Jan Pienkowski (The Fairy Tales, 2005).

The origins of the silhouette portrait are in fact far more complex and multi-dimensional than could possibly be imagined from such simple profiles. For the eighteenth century sitter, they satisfied a whole gamut of requirements. For those visiting a professional silhouettist in the late eighteenth century, the art of the silhouette had shifted from their childhood games to a serious study in physiognomy and a celebration of the neoclassical.

The rise in the popularity of the silhouette in the eighteenth century was partly down to one man – Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). The Swiss pastor published his ‘blockbuster’ of a book, Essays on Physiognomy Designed to Improve the Knowledge and Love of Mankind, in 1775. It was translated into every possible language and, from its publication until the mid-nineteenth century, was printed into over a hundredand- fifty editions, including many ‘pocket’ versions. The popularity of the book rested on the public’s interest in the relatively new field of physiognomy. In its most basic and fascinating form, it read as a guide to revealing character through facial features alone. Even into the nineteenth century, the book continued to acquire dedicated followers. Charles Darwin wrote from his voyage on the Beagle that his captain was ‘an ardent disciple of Lavater’. He heard that he had been lucky to travel on the boat as ‘I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected on account of the shape of my nose! … he had doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage’. To modern readers, it is at best a beautifully illustrated book of an outdated quasi-science and at worst it is alarmingly sexist and racist. To the Georgians it was pure gold.

Opening the book, it is immediately obvious why it had such an impact on the rise of professional silhouettists. Virtually every page features a silhouette portrait, as Lavater firmly believed that the profile, if accurately recorded, was the key to reading faces. Lavater’s prescriptive text even gave a guide and visual aids to taking the perfect silhouette; soon, all professional silhouettists were building screens and pantographs in accordance with his detailed descriptions.

It was not only Lavater who aided the rise of the professional silhouettist. Once pantographs came into use, the home-grown silhouette – often a larger-than-life, hollow-cut beast-of-a-thing – became a delicate, wall-friendly work of art. Once the candle had cast its shadow and the profile became clear on squared paper, the pantograph drew an equally accurate but manageable image. These images were then seen in a new light as their association with classical antiquity became apparent.

As the ever-commercial eighteenth century silhouettist liked to point out wherever possible, the art of the silhouette was the basis for the origin of all painting – quite a claim, but one not without foundation. The earliest artist said to have made a silhouette was called Dibutades, the daughter of a potter of the same name (fl.600 BC). She was a Corinthian who, according to Pliny the Elder, traced her lover’s profile on a wall by candlelight before he left to go on a journey. Pliny’s narrative describes the beginning of the practice of drawing, painting and sculpture, as her father then pressed clay on the outline. As Simon Schama pointed out in a 2004 article in The Guardian, the addition of the clay would have wrecked, ‘one imagines, the delicate shadow-play of his daughter’s love souvenir’. The direct descent of the silhouette from such a classical, romantic source ensured its popularity even for those unaware of Lavater and his writings.

Silhouettists were not the only claimants to this story, which was variously and vigorously depicted by many subsequent artists, including Vigée Le Brun, David Allan, John Mortimer, Alexander Runciman and Joseph Wright. Endless prints derived from these images, with imaginative variations churned out to meet the demand. On the reverse of some eighteenth century silhouettist’s trade labels, one often finds allusions to the ‘Corinthian Dame’. In an age obsessed with the classical past, it must have delighted silhouettists to find their art so clearly connected to it. Along with the plaster busts made by Wedgwood and the engravings of Flaxman, silhouettes harked back to an age of purity, where art was uncorrupted, exact and simple. On a practical level, silhouettes, along with their plaster bust cousins, fitted beautifully with the neoclassical furnishings of the fashionable Georgian home.

For such an apparently limited art form, the variety of techniques used to create a monochromatic profile was astonishing. As costs to the customer were kept low, the jobbing silhouettist was forced to earn his living via a nomadic existence and/or by inventing new ways of presenting the public with his or her facial outline. Silhouettists were, on the whole, itinerant, moving from town to town and attempting to secure good premises in fashionable cities during ‘the season’. Anywhere with a constantly shifting population was promising for business; Bath and Edinburgh were popular destinations, and from the Regency period coastal towns were often also a successful locality.

It is difficult to determine whether cut or painted silhouettes came first, as both started as childhood or parlour games. More complex methods are easier to pinpoint as professional artists came to experiment with painting silhouettes on the back of flat or convex glass or on ivory. Some silhouettes even include facial features, such as the extraordinary work of Jacob Spornberg (1768-1840) or Jane Read (c.1773-1857). As jewellery silhouettes became more popular, artists went head-to-head with portrait miniaturists and began to paint silhouettes on small pieces of ivory, set into bracelets or snuffboxes.

In Britain in the eighteenth century, the word ‘silhouette’ was not yet used to describe the portrait profile. For example, it is typical that Mary Tickell, the daughter of the famous Bath musician Thomas Linley, wrote in 1783 ‘We are all sitting for our Shades to a young man that Birch recommends’.

The story of how the word ‘silhouette’ began to be associated with these black profile portraits comes from the unfortunate French Controller of Finance for Louis XV, Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767). Étienne was a rather learned man, who had travelled extensively throughout Europe in his youth. Indeed, he had spent a year in London, studying the British economy and its financial system. When he was employed by the King in 1750 he decided to apply British rules to the French economy, which in broad terms were the ‘Robin Hood’ approach of taking from the rich to give to the poor – or at least, taking from the rich. At first he had great success in helping the French economy – it was said that he saved seventy-two million livres after being in office a mere twenty-four hours. His policies, however, were soon so unpopular that the nobility would do anything to rid themselves of this rather sanctimonious financier. After a few months of putting up with Monsieur de Silhouette’s taxes on all signs of external wealth (including buildings, staff and jewellery) and seeing precious objects thrown into the melting pot, a collective sigh of relief came when Étienne was dismissed by the King. During his time in office the French press had constantly and ferociously lampooned Étienne. Anything which represented parsimony became associated with this meanest of ministers – including the ‘poor man’s portrait’ – the ‘silhouette’.

It was another Frenchman who introduced the word to Britain – Augustin Edouart (1789-1861). Edouart arrived in England in 1814, newly married and keen to make a good living. His initial income came from teaching French but this was not as profitable as he had hoped. During an evening with friends Edouart decided to show off his skills as a paper-cutter – a boyhood hobby he had enjoyed – and, much to the amazement of his guests, he ‘in a fit of moderate passion … took a pair of scissors … took the black of the snuffers’ and cut accurate profiles of the young ladies present in minutes. Never one for modesty, Edouart speaks of this moment in his own autobiography, when his friends pronounced that he had ‘innate talent’ and urged him to take up cutting silhouettes as a career. Edouart was starting his career at a relatively low point for silhouettes, when the first enthusiasm of the eighteenth century was waning. He realised that silhouettes needed a new image, and one of his PR exercises was to change their name from the relatively dowdy ‘shade’ to the exotically French ‘silhouette’. He later reported that he had crowds of people in villages turning up to see this new invention, only to find that it was exactly the same as the shade or shadow portrait that they had sat for some thirty years before…

The simple antique silhouette is therefore a rather misleading work of art. Such profiles hide a complex and multi-layered past. Whilst its current fashionable status is based on its graphic qualities – and perhaps on its ability to conjure up the past in a shorthand image – the original sitters looked upon the silhouette to deliver far more. In a few minutes, the eighteenth century patron could witness how art originated. They also had a profile, which, in the right hands and with Lavater’s book for reference, could reveal their innermost person. Perhaps, however, they also saw silhouettes as we see them now – as works of beautiful simplicity and grace, which look great on the wall.

Emma Rutherford’s Silhouette: the Art of the Shadow is published by Rizzoli at £40 (hardback)

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