I’ve always been attracted to the graphic charm of silhouettes. My mother had one of herself as a child that I remember being intrigued by. The thought of my mother being a child and not just seeing her as a mother figure probably played into the fascination. I asked her to take a photograph of it for this post, unfortunately, after tearing her house apart, she couldn’t find it.
In their heyday, during the 18th century, the silhouette was an affordable means of having ones portrait done. The most common way of creating a silhouette was to trace a person’s shadow. The tracing was drawn out to a smaller scale and then cut out on black paper which was mounted to white plaster. Black paint was made by using soot from oil lamps mixed with other pigments before being bound with wax. Emma Rutherford’s book, “Silhouette, The Art of The Shadow” is a wonderful source if you’re interested in learning more about the evolution, process, and artists of the silhouette.
Besides portraits, silhouettes could be incredibly detailed and included scenes with multiple characters and often at table enjoying tea or playing with the family pet
The name, silhouette, came from France’s former Minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette. He was known for being frugal and the silhouette is an inexpensive form of portraiture, thus the name.
Once in awhile I will come across one at an estate sale, they are harder to find today as collectors have more knowledge and access via the internet. Some collectors limit themselves to either right or left profiles. I wonder how does one choose which to collect, the right or the left? I found the gentleman below. Dark and handsome, I had to have him even though he had a nasty smoking habit that stained the ground paper. Appears to be from the 1940’s or 1950’s. He inspired this post, so I guess you could say he is my muse.
The timeless black and white images are so versatile they can be used in traditional and contemporary interiors. I especially love them in non-traditional interiors as they impart history to a space that is otherwise devoid of it. They look fantastic against busy wallpaper or bold colored walls. Smaller silhouettes work wonderfully when displayed as a grouping.
We find the grouping above is successful due to the continuity of the gold and black tones, the quality of the individual pieces, the considerate spacing between them, and the similar frame sizes. In comparison, the grouping below is a hodge podge with different styles and subjects, mixed frame materials and finishes, and varying degrees of quality. I prefer groups to have a focus and be harmonious. Your eye shouldn’t have to dart around to take a look in, if it is done well your eye should take the grouping in as a whole.
If you own a silhouette, but feel it is too old-fashioned looking, it could be the frame or the mat that is bringing it down. Refresh your art by changing the frame, especially if it’s in a wood tone that has dated and has no lustre to it. Unless, of course, the frame is of some value and can be preserved. The round, framed silhouette of George Washington from One Kings Lane combines an antique yet fresh look given the frame’s width and finish.
Renowned interior designer and antiques dealer, Madeleine Castaing frequently used silhouettes in her projects. She was quite the character and I definitely recommend reading and perusing the photos in Emily Evans Eerdmans book about her “The World of Madeleine Castaing”. As an antiques dealer she had access to many fine specimens. Below are two photos from interiors she designed.
Silhouettes appear in other guises such as this amazing, custom textile designed by Diamond Baratta Design for a special client.
One of my favorite images showing silhouettes in a contemporary setting is from Annie Vincent Interiors. The silhouettes of the homeowner’s children displayed in the foyer brings the art form to the 21st century in a fresh and stylish way. The lighter color silhouettes, understated white on white mats and slim profile frames are sublime.
Spicher and Company came out with a group of Gentleman Silhouettes this market. Among them, the Bootlegger, the Contender, and the Red Baron. The Thespian is featured.
The profiles are both contemporary and retro given their hair styles and facial hair. The clothing is of another era and the background gives them a steampunk vibe. A well done interpretation of the original silhouette.
Thanks for reading!