Silhouettes (Cyrus King)
Silhouette making seems to have first appeared in France around 1750.
The technique was (sarcastically) named after Etienne de Silhouette, the
man who became Finance Minister of France in 1759. He was so well
known for his cheap, tightwad ways that this new and equally cheap art
form was named after him.
At that time there weren’t many choices if
you wished to have a portrait of a loved one. If you could afford
it, you could hire a portrait artist and have the image rendered in
paint. But the time involved in a sitting, and the fact that you
had to hire an artist to do the job made paintings unavailable for many
people. Silhouette artists often worked just by eye, snipping the
image out of black paper while scrutinizing the subject in profile.
Although the silhouette certainly failed to capture an image the way a
portrait could, it could be done in just ten minutes or less, and was
correspondingly less expensive, really the “snapshot”of the age.
Of the eight images in our collection, we know the identities of
five. The most amusing of them is that of Cyrus King. His head is
tipped up just a bit, giving him a look of, well, being a bit snooty.
He wears a high, very lacy, ruffled collar (called a stock) and the
front portion of his hair is teased up into the most amazing frizz.
By 1840, silhouettes had gone out of style; not many date from much
later than that. In 1839, the Daguerreotype had been introduced to
America. Within just a couple of years almost every town and city
had Daguerrean artist rendering portraits that were accurate to the most
minute detail. Why settle for just a profile in black when for
almost the same money you could have a real photograph?