Me and My Shadow

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
October 3, 2023

Originally known as “shades” or “shadow portraits,” silhouettes gained international recognition as the 19th Century dawned. By capturing a sitter’s profile, the art form provided a unique opportunity to possess a likeness of oneself or a loved one at a time when painted portraits were expensive and photography was not yet available. With their accessibility and surprising variety, silhouettes came into vogue time and again over the decades.

Full length silhouettes were relatively rare, like this intricate cut-and-paste silhouette from MCHS’s collection.

Widely found in Europe by the mid-1700s, silhouettes experienced a surge on this side of the pond by the early 1800s. At its peak in the 1830s, there were three main types, each with their own method: cut and paste, painted, and hollow-cut. In the cut and paste method, the sitter’s shape, which was mostly drawn freehand, was cut and affixed to a secondary sheet of paper. The second technique entailed applying black paint directly to a light-colored paper background, which allowed for a higher level of detail to be captured. Differing from these, hollow-cut silhouettes often used available technology to precisely trace a profile from which the image would be removed, leaving the outline to be pasted over a black background.

Bronzing, where gold paint was applied to add hair and clothing details, like that seen in the Hones of Morristown’s silhouettes (top photo), was a particularly fashionable addition.

Regardless of which technique was selected, each offered the opportunity to personalize the likeness depending on preference and price point. Indeed, the relatively simple, but customizable process enabled silhouettes to achieve popularity across social classes as they could be completed within several minutes for pennies or lavishly embellished for more. Hoping to capitalize on their broad appeal, professional and amateur “silhouettists” even traveled through major cities or summer resorts, advertising their talents in newspapers.  Well-known silhouette artist, Auguste Edouart, exemplified such a circuit during his trips to America, stopping in New York City (1844) and Saratoga Springs (1846).

The preference for the silhouette continued through the 1840s until the advent of photography shuttered the industry. As more came to favor the realism provided by daguerreotype, demand declined significantly and the art form was practiced only sporadically, although it experienced a brief resurgence around 1876 centennial for its callback to colonial times. Given the plethora of examples that remain today, the prominence of the silhouette is beyond a shadow of a doubt.