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Silhouette Portraits from the Days Before Photography

Part of a pair of 19th-century hollow-cut silhouettes showing a woman and gentleman on black silk, with watercolor bodies, in gilt repousse frames, both attributed to the so-called "Dash Artist" (Fertig Collection, all images courtesy Willis Henry Auctions)
Part of a pair of 19th-century hollow-cut silhouettes showing a woman and gentleman on black silk, with watercolor bodies, in gilt repousse frames, both attributed to the so-called “Dash Artist” (Fertig Collection, all images courtesy Willis Henry Auctions)

Before photography, the silhouette was a popular form of portraiture more affordable than oil painting, where the outline of a face in profile was cut in black.

“It was very popular to have a silhouette cut, especially if you were getting married, or elderly before you kicked the bucket,” said Willis Henry, proprietor of Willis Henry Auctions. This weekend at its folk art auction in Manchester, New Hampshire, the auction house is offering around 100 silhouettes that date to the 18th and 19th centuries, all collected by Howard and Florence Fertig. The Livingston, New Jersey–based couple focused on collecting American folk art up until Howard’s death in 2012. Alongside the silhouettes at auction are other folk art curios, from 19th-century watch hutches designed like tiny grandfather clocks to a weathervane shaped like a mermaid.

19th-century hollow-cut and watercolor silhouette of a young lady in a rose pink dress with blue ribbons and white collar, holding a book with "age 25 yrs, 1834," attributed to the "Puffy Sleeve" Artist
19th-century hollow-cut and watercolor silhouette of a young lady in a rose pink dress with blue ribbons and white collar, holding a book with “age 25 yrs, 1834,” attributed to the “Puffy Sleeve” Artist (click to enlarge)

At a glance the silhouettes may all look similar and somewhat monochrome, but each has a distinctive flare. The “Puffy Sleeve” artist added watercolor bodies to the black-cut heads, such as one of a young woman in a pink dress holding a book that reads “age 25 years, 1834.” Another creator known as the “Dash Artist” adorned the painted bodies of his figures with dash lines as decoration. One silhouette of a young lady boasts: “cut with scissors by Master Hubard without drawing or machine.” Most are housed in elaborate metal frames, frequently brass; these were an art form in themselves, often made and sold by the same artists.

Some cutters even incorporated the popular portraiture into sideshow acts. A rare hollow-cut silhouette, meaning that the interior of the paper was cut rather than the edges, states: “S.E. Staples at 25., Cut without hands by M.A. Honeywell (Martha Ann).” Honeywell was one of several silhouette artists of the 19th century born without hands, who cut with their feet or mouth.

“Silhouettes were a real art form back in the 1800s,” Henry said. But as “photography really started to take hold,” they became obsolete. “It’s a lost art,” he adds, although still practiced sporadically as a niche medium.

Some of the silhouettes were included in a 1991 exhibition from the Fertigs’ collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, but for the most part they haven’t been on public view. A few of the ones going to auction this weekend are below, with more to explore in the online catalogue.

Rare hollow-cut silhouette, "S.E. Staples at 25., Cut without hands by M.A. Honeywell (Martha Ann)"
Rare hollow-cut silhouette, “S.E. Staples at 25., Cut without hands by M.A. Honeywell (Martha Ann)”
19th-century hollow-cut silhouette, attributed to William Chamberlain (Loudon, NH, 1790-1860), watercolor striped vest with red stick pin, pen and ink hairdo, fancy eglomise oval glass, reframed in gilt period frame
19th-century hollow-cut silhouette, attributed to William Chamberlain (Loudon, NH, 1790–1860), watercolor striped vest with red stick pin, pen and ink hairdo, fancy eglomise oval glass, reframed in gilt period frame
Part of a pair of 19th-century hollow-cut silhouettes showing a woman and gentleman on black silk, with watercolor bodies, in gilt repousse frames, both attributed to the so-called "Dash Artist"
Part of a pair of 19th-century hollow-cut silhouettes showing a woman and gentleman on black silk, with watercolor bodies, in gilt repousse frames, both attributed to the so-called “Dash Artist”
Hollow-cut silhouette, early 19th century, of a gentleman with curlicue cut outs of jacket, attributed to E. Howard
Hollow-cut silhouette, early 19th century, of a gentleman with curlicue cut outs of jacket, attributed to E. Howard

h/t New York Times

The silhouettes collected by Florence and Howard Fertig will be sold on August 2 through Willis Henry Auctions (Radisson Hotel, Manchester, New Hampshire).

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