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Thursday, June 14, 2012


It seems slightly sacrilegious to post on a non-Joycean topic right before Bloomsday, but we wanted to highlight some of the research our collections intern Anna Juliar has been doing. James Joyce did write a group of  (now lost) short sketches called Silhouettes circa 1897, so, as with all things, there is some Joycean connection. Enjoy!


Who remembers having their silhouette cut by a person, or even produced by a machine? I’ve never had a silhouette taken, but some of my friends remember having them cut at fairs or at birthday parties as children. Here at the Rosenbach we have quite a few silhouettes from the 19th century, some cut by hand and some produced by a machine with a really fun-sounding name, the “Physiognotrace.”

Silhouette of Archibald Robertson. c. 1800-1825. Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1954.0285

The word silhouette has a surprisingly negative origin. During the 18th century, the very unpopular finance minister √Čtienne de Silhouette served King Louis VX. He lasted only eight months in his position, and soon afterwards anything cheap or miserly was called “√† la Silhouette.”

The profile portrait, on the other hand, became very fashionable in Europe and American during the late 18th to mid 19th centuries. Spurred by the popular “science” of Physiognomy (the belief that a person’s face contained evidence of moral and spiritual character), silhouettes were cheap, quickly made, and easily mass-produced.

Samuel Metford, silhouette of Noah Webster. 1842. Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1966.0011
Traditional silhouettists cut a piece of paper with a small pair of scissors while looking at a sitter’s profile, and mounted the paper on a background. A number of people still practice this craft today, and you can see a video of silhouette cutter Karl Johnson here. This was a demo for Martha Stewart’s show, and you can see how quickly he can capture the little girl’s likeness, even as she is (very cutely) fidgeting on her chair.

Machine-made silhouettes were produced by devices that traced a person's profile with a metal point, and simultaneously reduced the image, which was then cut away. The paper was often folded twice, resulting in the creation of four identical silhouettes. Invented in France in 1789, the silhouette machine was developed by many others and existed under a variety of names. Try saying these several times fast: Ediograph, Limomachia, Pasigraph, Prosopographus, Profileograph, Proportionometer.

Here in Philadelphia, the most famous machine resided in Charles Willson Peale’s Museum. Operated for ten years by Peale’s former slave, Moses Williams, Peale’s Physiognotrace was all the rage for the first decade of the 19th century. In 1803 alone, Williams cut 8,880 profiles. It remained a popular attraction until the rise of photography in the 1840s.

Peale Museum Silhouette. 19th century. Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1954.0928 
Silhouettes were given or exchanged to further cement social relationships, similarly to the action of “friending” someone on Facebook today. Some silhouettes were mounted and framed; others were simply slipped into the family bible or another favorite book. Interestingly, the majority of silhouette albums produced in Philadelphia were created by Quakers seeking to literally bind their community together.

Peale Museum Silhouette of Margaret Vaux. 19th century. Rosenbach Museum & Library, 1954.0929
This silhouette bears the Peale Museum stamp, and probably depicts Margaret Vaux of the Quaker Vaux family

Generally speaking, silhouettes were exchanged and traded among family members and friends. Unlike painted portraits, the silhouette was an intimate art form that was easily recognizable to acquaintances of the sitter, but was not specific enough for a stranger to identify. Silhouettes were plain, “blank” constructions of sitters which viewers could mentally fill in with all of the subject’s details absent on the actual paper.

Today, just as digital tools and apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic make digital photographs appear
“vintage,” silhouettes are experiencing a small resurgence. A few weeks ago I walked by a fine paper store on Walnut Street and saw this in the shop window:

Anna Juliar is a Ph.D. student in Art History at the University of Delaware and a collections department intern at the Rosenbach Museum & Library

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