WASHINGTON, DC — The double portrait looks relatively unremarkable: framed by delicate strands of human hair, the two silhouettes of women facing each other could represent the same individual, with pinned-up tresses and no details that identify either. But as preserved documents and letters suggest, the image is notably one of the earliest known likenesses of a same-sex couple. The sitters were Vermonters Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, who posed for this portrait in the early 19th century; when they passed away, they were buried in the same cemetery beneath a shared gravestone.
How silhouette portraits, although visually simple, have recorded stories that would otherwise likely be forgotten — or never documented — is one key concern of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Curated by Asma Naeem, the Portrait Gallery’s curator of prints, drawings, and media arts, the exhibition features about 50 objects that date from 1796 to today, emphasizing the narrative possibilities of this deceptively elementary medium. It is the first major museum show to examines these delicate, pitch-black pictures as a significant art form.
Like Drake and Bryant’s shared portrait, the vast majority of silhouettes on view are paper cutouts (the show also features relics like a decorated jug and tea set). These were often produced, beginning in the late 18th-century, with a cutting instrument known as a physiognotrace, which traced a person’s profile within minutes. Such speed, coupled with the low-cost of having one’s picture made, meant that this form of portraiture was incredibly accessible to nearly anybody from all walks of life (unlike oil paintings); by the 1780s, silhouettes proved highly popular in America, and, as Naeem argues, democratized portraiture long before the advent of photography.
The diversity of individuals represent on the gallery’s walls speak clearly to this. Many were created by Auguste Edouart (1789–1861), a prolific French artist who made thousands of silhouettes in his lifetime. Edouart fashioned pictures of well-known figures, from John Quincy Adams to the painter Thomas Sully, but he also made portraits of minorities and other marginalized individuals.
Laura Dewey Bridgman, recognized as the first blind and deaf person to be educated in the English language, sat for him in 1843, as did Chin Sung, a Chinese man from Peking (present-day Beijing). Edouart’s work was remarkably detailed: he took care to capture his subjects’ physical characteristics, adding extra details with white chalk. As simple as some of his depictions might have been (the image of Chin Sung, for instance, takes care to portray him as a Chinese foreigner, or outsider), the artist’s portfolio reveals an astonishingly varied cast of characters in mid-19th-century America.
In Edouart’s work, though, also lies his era’s racist practices. Of the more than-8,000 silhouettes he made in America and recorded in his own books, seven were of enslaved individuals, whom he identifies not by name, but as property of their owners. Black Out explores the often discriminatory portrayal of Black people in silhouettes through a number of historical artworks, where black paper marked not an in-vogue aesthetic but the color of skin perceived as inferior.
The oldest object on view also documents an ugly reality, showing on brown paperboard one of the earliest known images of a slave in the United States, accompanied by a bill of sale. The life-sized portrait depicts a 19-year-old girl named Flora, who was bought for 25 pound sterling in 1796. Unlike Edouart’s later images, this one was purely functional, intended to catalogue human property; it is similar to a 1807 newspaper ad that hangs nearby and features a bold silhouette of a runaway slave known as “Sancho.” Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Naeem describes how the blackness of the historical silhouette functioned differently for white versus black sitters:
Even though all silhouettes were devoid of detail, the lack of specificities for white sitters was compensated by the ways in which they were created as objects of affection and, subsequently, how they were preserved as familial documents. The biographical specificities of silhouettes of white individuals, in other words, were also centrifugal, created outside the objects themselves. Conversely, the lack of such compensating externalities for silhouettes of black sitters “blacked out” their personhood.
Notably, one of the most famous American silhouettists was actually a former slave. Moses Williams (1777–1825) worked at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia, which was founded by Charles Willson Peale, his former owner. There, he created thousands of silhouettes with the help of a physiognotrace. A handful are in Black Out, along with a portrait of the artist himself, shown with a neat ponytail and identified as “Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles.”
For disenfranchised individuals like Williams, silhouette-making offered a remarkable opportunity to make a name for themselves. As Allison Meier has noted on Hyperallergic, a number of silhouette artists were disabled, born without arms or hands. One of these was Martha A. Honeywell (1786–1856), who did not have forearms nor fully developed legs. From age 11, she cut silhouettes by working scissors with her mouth and her toes, which drew people interested in both a portrait and a spectacle.
These historical objects represent the more fascinating half of Black Out, which also features works by four contemporary female artists in four separate galleries. On view are large-scale paper installations by, of course, Kara Walker, the most well-known artist today working with silhouettes, which explicitly wrestle with slavery through her characteristically violent scenes. They contrast starkly with a massive, intricate installation by Kristi Malakoff comprising playful cutouts of an 18-foot-tall maypole and life-size children who dance around it.
Most compelling of this group are the works by Kumi Yamashita, who creates silhouettes by casting shadows of figures on a wall using painstaking craftsmanship. Her installation “Origami” consists of carefully folded papers on which she projects bright light; illuminated from one specific angle, the crumpled sheets reveal people’s profiles. “Chair” is a wooden sculpture bended to resemble a seat — but backlit to reveal that its surface is carved in a way to cast a shadow of a seated girl. In Yamashita’s work, the shadows seem like traces of living beings; this humanizing aspect is a reminder of the silhouettes’ important role through history of helping people represent and express themselves, as faceless and enigmatic old portraits may seem today.
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now continues at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through March 10, 2019.