history

Silhouette Portraits

The word silhouette is eponymous with Etienne de Silhouette, who was a hobby profile portrait cutter as well as the unpopular French Minister of Finance under Louis the Fifteenth (having also radically trimmed the country's budget). He did not invent the silhouette, but he did create paper likenesses of many court figures of the time. It was initially intended to reference the cheapness of the art.

In America, the heyday of the silhouette spans from roughly the mid 1700-1800's. Though it remains a quick and economical alternative to other forms of portraiture, such as oil painting, its popularity fell off with the rise of photography.

There are several different ways of creating a silhouette. Historically, a number of contraptions were invented that allowed people to trace shadows or physical outlines and then cut them with scissor or knife. Itinerant portraitists lugged these machines about the country from town to town cutting silhouettes for people of many walks of life. Less commonly, some profiles were painted on paper or glass. Today people also use programs like Photoshop to render an image.

Jenny practices the art of freehand silhouette portraiture, where the contour of a face is simply cut from a sheet of paper with a sharp pair of scissors while closely observing a subject in profile. There were a number of early American portraitists, like Auguste Edouart, who also worked in this fashion. His work remains in several museums and private collections and continues to be referenced by contemporary artists like Kara Walker. It also serves as a reminder that a precious sheet of paper cleverly snipped in a few moments can last for generations.