Many Early Silhouettes
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,
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
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.
professionals and amateurs tried their hand at techniques.
machine or hand cut, or, less often, painted.
Then, as now,
amateurs traced the profile, then snipped it out.
carried screens, sheets and lighted candles for casting the
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
Not only were
they quick with the scissors, but they cut directly by hand as
their models posed.
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
Highly prized are
the Brown silhouettes of sailing ships and his “The De Wit
Clinton” train with passengers.
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.
worked in India ink touch up black areas with accents of gold or
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
If you have any questions, you can Email us at
The Antique Shoppe
"Florida's Best Newspaper for Antiques
PO Box 2175, Keystone Heights, FL 32656-2175
Phone: (352)475-1679 Fax: (352)475-5326
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