Silhouettes are charming and evocative portraits cut out of paper that became popular in the mid-eighteenth century in Europe. The French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, either was the first to practice this craft or the practice was named after him for his parsimonious policies. In any event, 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 early nineteenth century in the United States and remain so today.
The Society's collection includes a group of framed silhouettes dating from the first part of the nineteenth century. Several of the framed silhouettes in the collection were created at Charles Willson Peale's Museum in Philadelphia. There is also a collection in the portrait collection of unframed items. There are four made by William King that accompany a printed advertisement for this practitioner who worked in Boston early in the nineteenth century. One of these is tentatively identified as Phillis Wheatley, the celebrated African-American poet. In 1916, Mrs. Frederick McClure presented AAS 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 three members of the Stark Family of Manchester, N.H.
Silhouettes remained popular throughout the nineteenth century. Francis Endicott, a publisher of lithographs in New York, issued the Album of Shadow Portraits in 1871. This portfolio included instructions for cutting silhouettes and supply of paper to do so.
- Georgia B. Barnhill, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts Emerita
Maurice Richards, Encyclopedia of Ephemera (New York: Routledge,
Raymond Lister, Silhouettes (London: Pitman, 1955).
Vincent DiCicco, "Silhouette Portraiture in America," Folk Art (Fall, 2001).