Artifact Corner: Silhouettes

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at these two charming silhouettes. These pictures are of Betsey Delord’s parents, Joseph Ketchum Jr. and Phebe Moore Ketchum. On the back of Joseph’s silhouette, written in ink, it says, “found in my grandmother’s old family bible, Francis D. Hall.” Betsey’s granddaughter, Fannie Delord Hall must have come across these while going through the family bible, and that level of context helps us connect these portraits to our family. Also imprinted on the back of Jospeh’s card it says, “cut with common scissors by Master Hubard, without drawing or machine.” So, what are silhouettes, and why were they so popular? Let’s learn a bit more about this beautiful portraits.

Some other common terms for a silhouette are “profile”, “shade”, “shadow portrait” or “likeness,” but the actual name, silhouette actually comes from a person. Etienne de Silhouette was a French finance minister in the mid 1700’s, and was rumored to cut these portraits in his spare time. Because his name was synonymous with doing things cheaply and because he was fond of making these images himself, this art-form was named after him. Silhouettes were incredibly popular throughout Europe from the mid 18th Century through the mid 19th Century. Silhouettes were most popular in America from the 1780’s though the 1840’s. Silhouettes were done not only of people, but also animals, and specific places, like a persons home. Silhouettes were so popular because they were far less costly than a painted portrait. Painted portraits not only cost a great deal, but they also required a great deal of time. The average person didn’t have days to sit for a painting, and the silhouettes could be done very quickly, and cheaply.

So, how does one make a silhouette? Your subject will sit in front of a light source, creating a shadow. This shadow is then drawn around and cut out out of black paper. The cut-out can then be placed against a light background to show the silhouette. Most silhouettes were just plain black profile images, like the ones we have of Joseph and Phebe, but others could be more elaborately painted and shaded to add detail to the portrait. Portraits could be done by the average person, but mostly people would go to a professional silhouette artist. Some portrait artists traveled from rural town to rural town, finding their clientele in their own houses. While others frequented the resort towns in the high seasons, hoping to generate business from the tourist trade. Some artists claimed the highest social status of the artisan class, due to their work with the nobility and royalty, because even though these pieces were inexpensive, they were all the rage, and therefore even the nobility wanted them done.

The decline of the silhouette craze really came about with the advent of photography. Initially, having your picture taken was very expensive, and therefore not an option for the average person. But, by the 1880’s having your picture taken had become quite affordable, and the silhouette trade all but disappeared. Our silhouettes are in quite good condition, and are the only portraits we have of Betsey’s parents! We are so lucky to have them in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,