Silhouettes (Cyrus King)

Silhouette making seems to have first appeared in France around 1750.  The technique was (sarcastically) named after Etienne de Silhouette, the man who became Finance Minister of France in 1759.  He was so well known for his cheap, tightwad ways that this new and equally cheap art form was named after him.

At that time there weren’t many choices if you wished to have a portrait of a loved one.  If you could afford it, you could hire a portrait artist and have the image rendered in paint.  But the time involved in a sitting, and the fact that you had to hire an artist to do the job made paintings unavailable for many people.  Silhouette artists often worked just by eye, snipping the image out of black paper while scrutinizing the subject in profile.

Although the silhouette certainly failed to capture an image the way a portrait could, it could be done in just ten minutes or less, and was correspondingly less expensive, really the “snapshot”of the age.  

Of the eight images in our collection, we know the identities of five.  The most amusing of them is that of Cyrus King. His head is tipped up just a bit, giving him a look of, well, being a bit snooty.  He wears a high, very lacy, ruffled collar (called a stock) and the front portion of his hair is teased up into the most amazing frizz.
By 1840, silhouettes had gone out of style; not many date from much later than that.  In 1839, the Daguerreotype had been introduced to America.  Within just a couple of years almost every town and city had Daguerrean artist rendering portraits that were accurate to the most minute detail.  Why settle for just a profile in black when for almost the same money you could have a real photograph?