Many Early Silhouettes Modestly Priced

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, April, 2005


Full-length double cutout portraits identified on the back as Grandmother Rebecca Greening 1814-1857. Estimated at $800/1,600. Sold for $517. Photo Credit: Garth's Auctions, Delaware, OH

You might well ask what is happening to the market for silhouettes. At a recent Garth’s Americana auction many fine examples sold below estimate. Yet, there is no shortage of collectors willing to pay top dollar for other 18th and early 19th, decorative accessories.

During the 1920s and 30s the silhouette was one of the most popular antique items. It was considered the perfect accessory for the revived interest in 18th and early 19th century furnishings. However there has been a downward slide since the 1990s. Even a signed profile by the famous artist August Edouart can sell for under $700. At the Garth sale even a Peale Museum, hollow cut portrait of George Washington sold under estimate for $258.

In the early 19th century, before there were daguerreotypes and photographs, “silhouettes” were the simplest and cheapest way to create a person’s  likeness. Having your profile “silhouetted” was as much a status symbol as being  immortalized in oil on canvas. You have only to look at the list of portraits created by silhouettes to realize its importance. George and Martha Washington as well as Thomas Jefferson  were snipped.

The art forms name derives from Etienne de Silhouette, Finance Minister of France in 1757, who enjoyed cutting profiles as a hobby.

Those who could afford it would have their entire family profiled, along with a chair, clock or family dog.

Both professionals and amateurs tried their hand at techniques.

Silhouettes were machine or hand cut, or, less often, painted.

Then, as now, amateurs traced the profile, then snipped it out.

Traveling artists carried screens, sheets and lighted candles for casting the proper shadows.

Cutting silhouettes also became a hobby for families. Often, an entire group were turned into silhouettes and framed. Among the most famous is the Copp family silhouettes. The lady of the house, who couldn’t commission a professional, tried her hand at painting a silhouette on glass.

At the other end of the spectrum were the highly detailed silhouettes done by William Henry Brown, Charles Wilson Peale, Augustin Edouart and James Hubard.

Not only were they quick with the scissors, but they cut directly by hand as their models posed.

Peale is considered among the best using the hollow-cut technique. This was done using a sharp penknife or scissors, tracing the shadow and placing the “hollowed out” section against a black background. Often, curls and ruffles were decorated with India-ink.

Highly prized are the Brown silhouettes of sailing ships and his “The De Wit Clinton” train with passengers.

CLUES: Most common are the “hollow cut” silhouettes. These were cut out of white paper and the hollowed out part was placed against a dark background. A penknife or scissors were used. Another type was cut out and pasted: black paper mounted on white.

Silhouettes who worked in India ink touch up black areas with accents of gold or silver.

Other times they were painted in browns and greens then gilded.

Prices go up when the silhouettes are signed and dated, and of a well known person. Lithographs have been made of many early silhouettes, especially of William Henry Brown’s silhouette of President Martin Van Buren. Use a magnifying glass before spending too much.


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