Friday, February 12, 2010

Paper Hearts: More About Silhouettes

I've written about silhouettes a bit before around Halloween, but today my interest was piqued by a more traditional application...

I've been up to my old tricks again while decorating for Clermont's annual Valentine's Day fundraiser. I just can't pass up an opportunity to make a paper chandelier.

Once again, paper silhouettes provided me with a convient and inexpensive decoration to suspend from them (I have used them extensively during past Halloweens). Hearts were an obvious necessity, but I've been getting more adept with cutting, and this time I also put some serious concentration into some ornate puti or Cupids.

But silhouettes have a much longer and more interesting history than just serving as convenient party decorations, and I thought today would be a good time to pay some homage to that. I took a little time to gather up what information I could find about them.
Beginning in the 18th century, the term "Silhouette" was applied to a profile portrait cut from black paper or card and often affixed to a white background (at right you can see Jane Austin's silhouette made circa 1810-1815). Though cut paper was the most common, the images could also be created by painting or drawing, and in 1802 painter Charles Wilson Peale even invented a machine that would assist with the creation of precise silhouettes. However, most continued to be made using the human eye and deft use of a pair of shears.

As a form of portrait art, the silhouette quickly gained popularity as a novelty among the wealthy. Even Catherine the Great had her's done. Since it was also inexpensive and very quick to produce, the silhoutte soon began to find a home among less wealthy individuals as well throughout the 19th century.

Robert L. Livingston, Margaret Maria's husband and a resident of Arryl House, may have dabbled in creating silhouette art himself. Shown in A Portrait of Livingston Manor (from a 1986 exhibition held at Clermont) are two beautiful silhouettes of Robert Fulton and his wife Harriet Livingston Fulton.

At Clermont, we have two silhouettes currently on display in the study. Displayed in oval frames on little stands like egg cups, the two men's heads depicted are not more than an inch or two tall. At left you can see the head of Edward Philip Livingston, who lived at Clermont during the beginning of the 19th century. It's not that Edward couldn't afford a more elaborate portrait. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least two others and a handsome bust of the man (though oddly enough, we have no images of his wife Betsy).

Instead, he went searching for this specific art form. Silhouettes had developed a life of their own. They continued to be popular well into the 20th century, when photography offered a cheaper and more accessible solution for preserving one's likeness. I can't help but think of the little 6" silhouettes of my mother and her sister as children in the late 1950s that hang on my grandmother's bedroom wall. My guess is that it was probably much easier to find a camera at that point than a silhouette artist, but the charm and nostalgia of the silhouette had been sealed in the public imagination.

Today silhouettes continue to hold our fascination. They have developed their own following of collectors (I got lost on this gentleman's blog for about half an hour while writing my entry). They have become the subject of a very lovely book called Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow, and silhouette artists continue to create amazing art. If you are feeling adventurous you might try cutting your own silhouettes according to these directions on But with a quick search of the internet, I even found a few artists in New York and Rhode Island, as well as more distant locations. (Pictured right are works by artist Deborah O'Connor. A local artist also contacted me recently about my October silhouette post, though I have to apologize for misplacing her information, and I hope that she will post it in the comments for this blog).

After making my own decorative silhouettes for a few years now, I can say that I've come appreciate the expressiveness that an artist can coax out of a flat piece of paper. Whether it is the unmistakable lump in Harriet Livingston Fulton's nose or a child's pouty lips and curling hair, the dependance on outline only is a difficult artist challenge to meet succesfully. While I was biting my tongue in concentration and trimming around the feathered wings of that Cupid, I was feeling that appreciation even more acutely.


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  2. I have been hand-cutting silhouettes for 40 years, first for Disneyland in high school, and then during college for Disney World. Later I found myself doing them world-wide for weddings, historic venues, and world-wide. I am based in New York and Houston, and find the cities similar in the international influences and the focus on art and diversity. I just made a full length documentary on silhouette history as associate producer called "Silhouette Secrets" and we are making the film circuits, winning some awards. I made it with a UK silhouette artists and you can see it on-line (the trailer).

  3. I love to hand-cut silhouettes all over New York. My father was born in Brooklyn, and my husband and I lived in Manhattan. I work in New York all the time. Come see the award winning documentary that I am associate producer of with Charles Burns and Andi Reis as the producers (they live in the UK) at the New York Independent Film Festival, called "Silhouette Secrets", viewing April 30. Anyone can buy tickets to the full-length historical documentary film, that previous the week before in London and wins at the Worldfest the same weekend in Houston!