A Short History of Silhouettes

Silhouettes go back to ancient times and were mentioned by Pliny the Elder when writing about legends. In Britain they were called shades or profiles and were largely activities for the children or entertainment during parlour games. When Frenchman Augustin Edouart first started doing profiles in England in the 19th century he called them silhouettes.

Silhouettes were often regarded as the poor man’s portrait, as it was the cheapest possible representation of form and personality. Early silhouettes were painted and cut out in black-painted card. By the middle of the 19th century there were numerous new techniques, there were silhouettes painted on the reverse of glass or on ivory panels and some artists used gold to embellish their work.

Silhouettists, many of whom were female, would work incredibly quickly, some claimed they could take a likeness in two minutes. Working at that kind of speed it would not have taken them long to take the likeness of most people in a small town and many of them had to travel in order to earn a living. They would work in ports and seaside piers, others would set up temporary studios in fashionable places like Bath. Only the more established silhouettists would have had their own studios with a regular client base. Continue reading “A Short History of Silhouettes”