Silhouette cutting in the early 19th century

A Mr Edwards (20k jpeg)

From the 1800's onwards silhouette artists began to cut their portraits out with scissors. All the silhouettes on this page are from my own collection.

The inscription on the back of this silhouettes reads "given to Emily Edwards by her grandfather in the year 1846", who the artist was, there's no way of knowing!

The best artists worked freehand with the scissors, much as silhouettists do today, but there were many artists who employed all kinds of artificial contrivances. These ranged from the use of camera obscura, chairs fitted with head clamps, devices to prevent candles guttering (and so spoiling the shadow), even to automatic tracing arms, with one end passed over the subjects face! Most of these devices served to draw the image onto paper, and it was then up to artist to cut around the line.

Many artists would embellish their "shades" with gold, for a small extra fee (after the tradition of the earlier artists) but in most cases these embellishments lacked the "finesse" of the eighteenth century.
Gentleman with a Cane Sil (66K jpeg)

Portrait of a gentleman with a cane, by unknown artist, in my collection. I think this dates from around 1830, although it's hard to be sure without any kind of label or insription! It was cut from black paper and lightly bronzed, although the bronzing is much faded. The ugly grey smudge to the lower right is all that remains of a grey watercolour background often used by artists of this time, I could never quite see why!

The demand for silhouettes at this time was so great that even quite untalented artists were able to find business at country fairs all over the country, and many examples survive to this day. Certainly "shades" became a lot cheaper, and it was in this period that they truely became art for all people. Almost anybody, who would never dream of commissioning a portrait from an artist, could afford to have their shadow cut out.

Gentleman Sil (26K Gif)

Portrait of a gentleman, by unknown artist, in my collection

Mid 19th century I THINK. This is set in a small metal frame, barely large enough to accomodate his top hat!

One of the best artists working in England at that time was Auguste Edouard. He began his career in England, and then moved to the US. In both countries he resisted the prevailing decline into mannerism, and gave silhouettists a new direction for the twentieth century.

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©Charles Burns/ Edo Barn Site/ page was first created in September 1997 and last updated August 2012