A Cut of Silhouette History

(Second and final part of the “silhouette” post)

A recent article in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, “Shadow Art,” presents the history of the silhouette art form.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, “a penny-pinching minister of finances under Louis XV, whose tenure was brief because parsimony rarely has a big following… The phrase à la Silhouette came to mean doing things on the cheap.”

The “cheap” concept evolved to become conflated with the economical and growing art form of commissioning portraits cut as silhouettes in lieu of sitting for painted portraits. It became a popular “craze” from the last quarter of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. As photography gained popularity—which was another “new” intriguing art form—silhouette work started losing its popularity.

An exhibit “Silhouettes: from Craft to Art,” was mounted during the summer of 2014 at the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is reviewed in a blog post linked here, which includes beautiful images from the late 1700s which are held in the collection of the Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard university's Houghton Library.
An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

Here is the description from the Houghton Library blog post:

A draftsman sat behind a movable standing frame which held a sheet of glass and that leaned against the shoulder of the sitter. The draftsman drew the outline of the sitter’s profile on a piece of translucent, oiled paper placed on the frame. A stick of wood or iron attached to the middle of the frame supported the sheet of glass and could be moved by the draftsman.

A recent exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880 – 1910 during 2014 at the Columbus Museum of Art exhibited several examples of a variation of a form of silhouettes as “shadow theater art” designed for the cabaret, Le Chat Noir in Paris.

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia Collection du Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The individual pieces conveyed silhouette-style scenes attached to a stick that would be raised above a screen (as in a puppet theater style) and narrated to convey the story via a “Shadow play.” Henri Rivière was the designer of the shadow theater scenes displayed in the exhibit.

I was profoundly moved at how the silhouettes in the shadow theater pieces dramatically presented a battle as a single cutout “scene.” It was almost a “hair-stand-on-end” moment to imagine the earthy aroma in the tavern, the boisterous crowd, talking and jostling, and then the passion of the French peasants, laborers, and countrymen captivated by the animated storytelling of the narrator. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination in a shadow play –I presume in a curious way, like sitting on the edge of a seat listening to a radio program.

The shadow theater images in the exhibit (as shown in the image here) are another example of how powerful various art forms can be. Somehow the contrast of the black and white and the detail strangely conveys more emotion and the impending movement than many full-color paintings of the same scene might connote, or even a poorly executed movie with actual moving images of the scene.

For more information on silhouette art and on contemporary artists, see my previous blog post at artinthecenter.wordpress.com

Note: as discussed in the previous post, for Joy Yarbrough and the silhouettes she creates, she cuts them freehand while holding the paper and scissors in the air and looking at her subject. She does not use a traditional set-up as shown in this post.

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About artinthecenter

I am a lifelong artist having studied painting, photography, drawing, and other media, in schools in the US and Italy. I won my first art contest when I was five--at a museum-- and my point of view tends to be as a five-year-old creative child embracing life. Creativity is a core response for me. How can we bring the infinite knowledge and excitement held by our museums and academics into the heart and minds of everyone? There is so much to share. Let’s ask questions, and discuss. Follow me on twitter @janemmason. Check out all sort of artsy information at: www.watchingpaintdry.com +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ This policy is valid from 1 January 2016 This is a personal, educational, blog written and edited by me, Jane M. Mason. For questions about this blog, please contact: jane@watchingpaintdry.com. Sincere effort has been exerted to cite, recognize, and thank all sources of content, including images, quotations or concepts that are not those of Watching Paint Dry LLC (WPDLLC), including Jane M. Mason. If you feel we have included something in this blog that has not been accurately noted or recognized to be from a source other than the intellectual property of WPDLLC, please let me know and I will adjust the citation when presented with specific citation sources and details. As an artist and writer, a core principal of mine is to respect and recognize intellectual content of others. If you are interested in using concepts, photos or other intellectual property from this blog, please contact, Rights Manager, Danielle Raub at Hello@watchingpaintdry.com. This blog does not contain any content that is likely to present a conflict of interest, although opposing points of view, as long as they are respectful, are welcome. This blog does not accept cash or paid topic insertions. However, we will consider accepting and keeping free products, services, travel, event tickets, and other forms of compensation from companies and organizations. The compensation received will not influence the content, topics or posts made in this blog. All advertising is in the form of advertisements generated by a third party ad network. Those advertisements will be identified as paid advertisements. The owner of this blog, WPDLLC, is not compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics within the content of this blog. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are those of Jane M. Mason or the associates of WPDLLC. If we claim or appear to be experts on a certain topic or product or service area, we only endorse products or services that we believe, based on our expertise, are worthy of such endorsement. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. This policy has been adapted from DisclosurePolicy.org. For your own policy, go to http://www.disclosurepolicy.org

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