Jane fans are familiar with images of her distinctive profile (left), and her sister Cassandra’s silhouette (right.) In the 18th and 19th centuries the silhouette was a popular form of portraiture with families and individuals who could not afford a more formal and expensive mode of having their likenesses made. Oil paintings required several sittings, and even pastels or watercolours took time. Silhouettes were created in one quick sitting, and were therefore affordable.
A complicated silhouette with painted touches, such as Cassandra’s, would take a skilled artist like John Miers a reputed three minutes to produce. With such speed, a silhouettist working in a crowded area could create enough portraits to make a decent living at a penny a likeness.
Silhouettes were so easy to trace with tracing machines or by hand that amateurs could also make them. In Sense and Sensibility 1995, Willoughby is shown sitting for his portrait. Marianne, who was no professed artist, laboriously drew Willoughby’s profile using two sets of grids, one for Willoughby’s screen and one for her drawing pad, and well-placed candles that cast his profile against the screen. (See image at top of page in this link.)
Unfortunately Willoughby grew impatient (or amorous), and he peeked around the screen to flirt with Marianne. When he returned to his seat, his profile had shifted on the grid (see first and last image.) For an amateur, such a shift would have been disastrous. A skillful silhouettist would have been finished before Willoughby moved.
Most silhouette artists were itinerants who worked their magic in popular tourist spots, such as Brighton or Bath, or at public fairs, where people were apt to buy souvenirs. They either traced profiles by hand and painted them in, or skillfully snipped away at the paper with sharp scissors. With an experienced artist, the second method would have been fast and accurate.
Some silhouettes, such as this example of the Austen family on the JASNA site could be fairly complicated. Still others, such as those set in the rings and brooches on the Wigs on the Green website, were extremely small. The title of this post is somewhat of a misnomer, since both the rich and poor were enamored with these portraits, but while the rich could afford to commission sumptuous paintings in addition to these shades, a silhouette likeness was all a poor person could afford.
John Miers is considered the premier silhouette artist of the 18th century. His skillful shades (and those of his followers) are represented in the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria And Albert Museum. Collectors prefer Miers’ earlier likenesses, which showed a delicacy of touch and painting that are unequaled. The artist, who lived in Edinburgh, also snipped John Burns’s profile. Click here to view: Robert Burns’s Appearance.
To learn more about silhouettes, click on the following links:
- My other post on this topic: Tracing Jane Austen’s Shade
- Etienne de Silhouette: The silhouette was named after this Frenchman, but he was not well liked in his time.
- Candice Hearn: Georgian Painted Silhouettes: Beautiful examples and a great explanation.
- Silhouette History: Includes a fascinating tale of Etienne de Silhouette, Finance Minister of France, who liked to cut paper silhouettes but who ignored the plight of the poor.
- Historical Time Period of the Silhouette: Includes a description of how silhouettes were made during the 18th century, which is distinctly different from cutting the silhouette.
- Silhouette Cutting in the Early 19th Century: The Silhouette Parlor: This website provides a clear, concise explanation of silhouettes and examples
- Robert Burns’ Clarinda: John Miers cut a silhouette of Robert Burns’ mistress. The story is as fascinating as the portrait.
- Paper Profiles: American Portraits in the Silhouette, Penley Knipe, Stanford – This article provides a detailed history and explanation of the silhouette.
- Shades and Silhouette Pictures: Penley Knipe describes the materials and techniques used in American portrait silhouettes.
This three-minute YouTube clip of a silhouette artist demonstrates how quickly silhouettes are made. It also includes a short history of silhouette making.