Selfies for the 99%

1800 black-ink portrait of Alexander Hamilton painted by itinerant silhouettist William Bache

Before cameras or iPhones were invented, Americans yearned for a cheap, quick way to record an image of themselves.  Enter the 18th-century physiognotrace invention and masterful cutter, who could produce a likeness in just a few seconds with a flick of the scissors.

It’s the story told by the New-York Historical Society in its exhibition, In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, on display through November 29.

Drawn from the NYHS collection, the show tells the story of how the mania for classical images (think Greek urns) morphed into a democratic art form practiced by itinerant artists, French Revolution expats, showy raconteurs, and everyday people in the early part of the 18th century.

510-510 B.C. Greek amphora – a classical inspiration for 18th c. artists in a new democracy.

Silhouettes were cheaper than having your portrait painted, so nearly everyone could afford to have one.  In the beginning, 18th-century painters painted black-on-white silhouettes, but later moved toward cutting profiles into white paper and backing the cut-out with black paper. The show’s first gallery presents a who’s who of early America – Alexander Hamilton, Colonel Henry Luddington on horseback (who helped create General Washington’s “secret service”), and memorials of the General himself.

But a close read of the label copy reveals a greater surprise – the artists creating the images, including Robert Fulton (later inventor of the steamship) and Major John André, the popular party-circuit man-about-town in British-occupied New York and Philadelphia who was famously hanged as a spy by the Continentals.

1795 painted portrait by French expats Valdenuit and Saint-Mémin, pioneers in using the physiognotrace

The emphasis here is on inexpensive, everyday art for the 18th and 19th-century home. A contraption invented in France by a court musician, and brought to America by two noblemen-engineers fleeing the revolution in their home country, captivated the attention of the newly democratized land.

The physiognotrace machine illuminated the shadow of a sitter’s profile on a wall. Using a pantograph, the artist could quickly scale down the life-size image, trace it, and deftly cut four silhouettes at once from folded paper.  What a performance!

Famed portraitist, naturalist, and museum-creator Charles Wilson Peale, whose natural history museum was located on the second floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, just had to have it.  From 1802 on, crowds flocked to the museum, paid 25 cents admission, and created their own selfies amidst the mammoth skeleton, minerals, wax figures, Indian artifacts, and fossils on display.

1802-1815 album from the Peale Museum

Mr. Peale charged one penny for the paper, and if you wanted a professionally cut small silhouette, you paid an additional 6 cents to Moses Williams, one of Peale’s sons, or a visiting silhouette virtuoso. Museum visitors would gather to watch the show and marvel at the furiously fast likenesses. In his first year, Willliams cut about 8,000 silhouettes, providing a really decent income for the former slave.

1824 portrait by famed freehand scissors artist William James Hubard

Since four images were made at each 6-cent sitting, the Peale Museum often asked to keep one of the duplicates. A full album of these is displayed in the second gallery, with names, dates, and likenesses of what could be called America’s first selfies.

Before photography’s invention in the 1840s, silhouettes were considered the way to go for inexpensive likenesses, and several cutting virtuosos received national acclaim, commissions, and fame.

Master Hubard, a renowned child-artist prodigy, built a highly successful gallery business cutting silhouettes and painting portraits, and William Bache, who roamed from Maine to New Orleans, offering a sliding scale of options to patrons from the most basic silhouette portrait to embellished works in gilded frames.

1841 Édouart portrait of congressman Millard Fillmore, later the US president

NYHS devotes an entire gallery to the master silhouettist of all time,  Augustin Édouart, who specialized in cutting full-length silhouette portraits freehand. His artworks placed the figures into painted settings, and the most spectacular works depicted rooms in the grand salons of America, populated with up to a dozen figures, including visiting celebrities.

The illusions and details were celebrated by art critics and the public, and ranked on a par with the most skillful portrait painters of his day. Unfortunately, just as he was concluding his US tour, photography was catching the public’s eye and the mania for black-and-white likenesses began to fade.

1870 machine-cut silhouette created for tourists flocking to Saratoga Springs

The exhibition concludes with a nod to the last wave of silhouette-making in America ­– a revival of interest in European folk-art paper cutting, the introduction of inexpensive black-on-white machine-cut silhouettes for the tourist trade, and work by contemporary artists who use silhouettes.

Enjoy looking through our Flickr album to see some of our favorites, including the epic wall-sized silhouettes of the five NYC boroughs cut by Béatrice Coron.

1870 machine-cut silhouette created for tourists flocking to Saratoga Springs

NYHS is to be congratulated on this fun, revealing presentation of this forgotten art form in the context of country’s growth into a vibrant democracy – likenesses of everyday people that could be had by anyone with either a penny or 25 cents to spare.

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