Silhouettes are profile portraits cut out of paper that became popular in the mid-eighteenth century in Europe. Generally the profile of the sitter is cut out of white paper and mounted on glossy black paper or black fabric. These portraits became very popular in the United States during the early nineteenth century. Itinerant silhouette cutters traveled up and down the eastern seaboard advertizing in American newspapers and making likenesses of a wide variety of citizens from all walks of life.
The Society's collection includes both unframed and framed silhouettes primarily dating from the first part of the nineteenth century. Several of the silhouettes were created at Charles Willson Peale's Museum in Philadelphia. There are four silhouettes made by William King that accompany a printed advertisement. One of these (pictured above) is tentatively identified as Phillis Wheatley, the celebrated African-American poet. In 1916, Mrs. Frederick McClure presented AAS with eighty-nine silhouettes cut by her grandfather, William Chamberlain (1790-1860) of Loudon, New Hampshire. He cut these during a two-year's tour through New England in the 1820s. Also present is a group of three silhouettes cut by J. Locke of members of the Stark Family of Manchester, N.H.
An illustrated inventory of the collection, indexed by name, is available.
Silhouettes are available through the Society's digital image archive.
Carrick, Alice Van Leer, " Novelties in Old American Profiles", Antiques, October, 1928, p. 322ff.
DiCicco, Vincent. "Silhouette Portraiture in America," Folk Art (Fall, 2001).
Lister, Raymond, Silhouettes (London: Pitman, 1955).
Oliver, Andrew. Auguste Edouart's Silhouettes of Eminent Americans, 1839-1844. Charlottesville: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, by the University Press of Virginia, 1977.