Collecting Silhouettes: What to Collect, a Dilemma of a Physiognomist

We all considered this subject when we started collecting antique silhouettes. Beginners, usually, “grab” everything that comes their way. There is nothing wrong with that as long as one can afford to do so, and it is certainly educational; quick education, at a cost, may be the appropriate expression. Nevertheless, the outcome of the items purchased in haste, without proper education on the subject, often ends unloved and unwanted. This is the result of having purchased misattributed items, reproductions, fakes and furbelows. There is also another caveat for any collector, from beginners to advanced, no matter what one collects; this caveat relates to simple human nature. Whether the proper term is greed, carelessness, or just plain stupidity is difficult to assess. Perhaps it is the combination of all of the above. This writer is certainly guilty as charged.

“Buy the book before the coin” is an often-quoted expression for beginning numismatists, but this is true for any collecting field, including physiognomists. The disregard, to this first fundamental rule, often compels the focus into disarray. Having learned the lesson, awkwardly, a collector soon discovers the importance of reference materials. A collector, only then, is able to ascertain his holdings. In “that” collection, there is a vast array of profiles. Some are Continental; others may be British, a few scattered American, and other profiles that are un-attributable to their origin. The belief, once held, that a silhouette is a silhouette derives a new sense of significance. Soon, a collector is able to determine likes and dislikes, common verses rare, and such factors and attributes as aesthetics and even the attractiveness of crudeness.

Should a collector specialize? By specializing, the knowledge will be somewhat limited to other media, methods and processes. However, a specialist is capable of knowing even the minute specifics of one’s chosen field. Is diversification more attractive? Each collector must make a decision. A collector living in England would likely collect British silhouettes; and a collector from Germany is likely to collect German subjects. The situation in this country differs somewhat, as many British and Continental profiles crossed the Atlantic in the last two-hundred years. Just because a profile came out of Boston, there is no guarantee that it is an American piece.

If one were to collect all attractive silhouettes, one must not only possess the wealth of a King, but also a very large house or a series of houses, with many high walls to display the collection. How many silhouettes are too many? Most collectors are of average means with average sized “quarters,” whatever that may be. After all, profiles are for displaying; they do not belong in boxes, drawers or under the bed. Having extended the writing this far, without any substance, and before the readers start an accusation on wordiness and verbosity, a change of course may be in order.

There are, basically, three types of American silhouettes: hollow-cut, cut-and-paste and painted. There are, also, varieties and combination of those three main types. The terms are easily recognizable, and they reflect what they represent. A hollow-cut means exactly that. The inner portion of a paper was cut out leaving the rest intact. This type of work is the bulk of American art. A cut-and-paste work is an image cut from black paper and then pasted onto a light colored backing. Not many American artists used this technique. Painted silhouettes need no explanation. This type represents only a small minority of American works.

In addition, there are two main types of images: bust length and full figure. The full figure silhouettes, almost always, employ the cut-and-paste technique, and the majority of what is available are British in origin. William Henry Brown is one of a very few exceptions. How does one categorize Edouart? He cut many silhouettes at Saratoga and elsewhere. Nevertheless, can we consider him an American artist?

The majority of American silhouettes were produced between 1803-1810, and they were hollow-cuts using a tracing device of one sort or another. From 1810-1825, the whole market of profile taking declined. A short revival materialized around 1825 and continued until the mid-40s. This is the period where a new generation of profile takers found new clientele, the sons and daughters of the generation past. Most artists of this period are anonymous. Many artists, now, used a fancier hollow-cut method and combined watercolor, inking, and even ready-made woodblocks prints.


Can Someone Identify the Artist?

RARE Double Silhouette

Although I owned several double silhouettes in the past, they were all two single silhouettes cut from two papers that were matted to look as though they were a true double silhouette. When I saw this silhouette last week at an antique show, I knew I was looking at something very special, but I had to make sure and opened the back. One piece of LARGE wove paper measuring 6.5 x 8.5 inches stared at me. To make things even better, the gold leaf frame, quite worn, is original to the silhouette with its bubbly glass. I looked all over this large paper for a possible embossing but no luck.

This may sound funky, but certain, minor details that may be quite insignificant to most collectors are quite valuable to me. In this instance, there are traces of lead around the periphery of the images, obviously indicating that a stylus was not used to trace the subjects. The image of the man looks very similar to those cut at the Peale’s Museum. The use of lead indicates it is not a Museum piece. This is not to say that lead was not used in lieu of the stylus; however, I, personally, have yet to meet a Peale with penciling around the border. Someone may very well disprove this statement right off the bat by writing me saying that someone is in possession of a silhouette embossed “Peale,” “Museum,” or “Peale’s Museum” with penciled borders.

Although these two silhouettes are quite unlike each other, and they seem as though different artists cut them, certain telltale signs suggest that both are by the same hand. They are both very confidently cut without ragged lines; every contour is smooth, and the lines are straight where they need be and the curves are well rounded. The shape of the ribbons and the hanging hair details of the neckline are the diagnostic emblem of both cut by the same hand. Furthermore, they are not a brother and a sister. As Lavater may say, their physiognomy differs.

This is ca.1810, and a nice example of a true double silhouette.