Photo Detective: Silhouettes

Photo Detective: Silhouettes

Judi Fuller's curiosity led her to submit this image with a single question: "What is it?" A caption identifies this woman as Anna Upson (1809 to 1863), Fuller's fourth-great-grandmother, so it's not the person but the image we're investigating in this case. The desire for a lasting likeness...

Judi Fuller’s curiosity led her to submit this image with a single question: “What is it?” A caption identifies this woman as Anna Upson (1809 to 1863), Fuller’s fourth-great-grandmother, so it’s not the person but the image we’re investigating in this case.

The desire for a lasting likeness of a loved one didn’t begin with photography. Before the daguerreotype debuted in 1839, families either hired artists to paint portraits, or, like Anna Upson, for black paper cut-outs called silhouettes. Michel Frizot, editor of The New History of Photography (Konemann, out of print), says these shadow portraits are centuries old and even Leonardo da Vinci used devices to create them.

The 1743 invention of the pantograph machine made it easier for an artist to “take” a silhouette from paper, but many of the best artists continued cutting profiles by hand without mechanical help. Upson’s image is an example of the latter. Sitters could ask for enhancements, such as painted hair and trim—you’ll see some online at the Silhouette Parlor.

Knowing the artist’s name can help you assign a time frame, but unlike photographs (which often bear a photographer’s imprint), most silhouettes aren’t signed. Contact a historical society in your ancestor’s hometown and ask about silhouette artists who worked in that area. The staff also may be able to recommend a local silhouette collector who can help you identify the artist based on the technique and style of the piece.

Dating a silhouette can be challenging, since you can’t discern much clothing detail. Here, the outline suggests a full hairstyle or hair ornament and a lace collar. In the mid-1840s women arranged their hair covering their ears in buns fastened high on the crown of the heads. Hair combs worn on the crown also were popular. You can see examples of these hairstyles in Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer (Kent State University Press, $65). High collars weren’t in vogue at the time, but this detail could be an artistic touch. If you own a silhouette, examine the hair and clothing visible in the profile and compare the design to fashions worn when the sitter was alive.

Upson may have sat for this silhouette in the early 1840s, when photography had been invented but wasn’t available everywhere. Silhouettes remained common through the mid-nineteenth century and have never gone out of style. You even can make them yourself following the instructions in Kathryn K. Flocken’s Silhouettes: Rediscovering the Lost Art (Paperportraits.com Press, $18.95).

Store silhouettes in acid and lignin-free paper sleeves, away from sunlight. They’re worth saving as charming artifacts from the old days, before photography. <!–

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