Look at Silhouettes

Sharon Lorenzo explores the history of silhouettes.

                                 Silhouette of Sarah Margaret Fuller by Henry Williams, 1830. Concord Museum.

Before the invention of photography emerged in the United States about 1839, only the wealthy patrician could afford the luxury of a portrait in oil or tempera paint. Therefore the practice of having one’s silhouette made instead emerged with itinerant masters setting up shop to capture the profile likeness of men, women and children alike. The simplicity of the practice appealed to Quaker modesty as noted in the image above. Likewise it allowed for the more pluralistic vision of including black and white citizens when the nation was struggling to find a more balanced identity with multiracial recognition for all classes.  This exhibition at the New York Historical Society brings together portraits from their collection as well as loans from many other institutions to reveal the breadth and depth of this imagery which took its name from a French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette ( 1709-1767), who was noted for his spare and inexpensive views on spending.[i]

Art historian Asma Naeem noted that one of the most sought after practitioners was a black employee of the Peale family from Philadelphia who charged 25 cents per image with an additional 6 cents for a frame. Moses Williams supported his family with this work as the craze for his silhouettes spread across the states. His own likeness from 1803 is in the collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia as seen below.[ii]

Moses Williams by Raphael Peale, ca. 1803.

Various machines played a role in the progression of the profiles, and one such invention is noted in 1792 by Thomas Holloway, below.  The combination of a chair and portable easel allowed the silhouette portraitist to take his work on the road instead of being confined to an art studio.

  Line engraving, Thomas Holloway, 1792.

Another  famous work from the collection of the New York Historical Society is of an Indian Chief of the Osage tribe dressed in  full earrings, waist coat and pony tail.  Indian delegations had been invited to meet President Jefferson after the visit to the western territories by his scouts Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805-6.  With the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, these portraits brought to all a new awareness of their Native American brothers who were also becoming a part of the United States racial profile.

 Chief of the Little Osage, Charcoal and crayon.

Scientists began to also use these profiles for theoretical studies of the human skull. Johann Lavter proposed that an individual’s inner character could be perceived by the profile and shape of his head.[iii]  Even Queen Victoria in England had a book made for herself in 1834 of the “Shades of her Friends and Family.”  She referred to these artists as ‘profilists’. The practice also began to surface on Wedgewood English pottery, medals and coins.[iv]

Reverend Absalom Jones, 1808, Creamware.

Contemporary artists such as Kara Walker are part of the installation in this show as her monumental wall murals embrace the silhouette tradition.  Created in 2013, Walker’s Sampler for Savages reveals her in depth study of the profile practice which she magnified in this work of 11 by 34 feet.  We can detect racial innuendo, dark fantasies and fairy tales all mixed into one work.   Walker reiterates that some thought of this practice as an effective abolitionist strategy used by profile makers to depict racial tension and the need for integration reform.

                          Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Savages, Kara Walker, 2013, Cut paper on wall board.

One additional work of paper printed on fabric from the Sheldon Museum of Vermont History depicts two women who operated a tailoring business in about 1805.  This work foreshadows the use in mixed modern print media of profiles in newspapers and magazines used to this day.

                            Double Silhouette, 1805-15, Unidentified artist, Sheldon Museum of Vermont History.

This show at the Historical Society is worthy of a deep read and long visit as it brings to our modern art arena a piece of our visual history that is timely, provocative, historical and yet very present in our cultural world today in many forms.  As a part of our popular culture, silhouettes remain a lasting tribute to the evolution of our national pride and formulation of a unified American identity.

New York Historical Society – Jan. 17-April 5, 2020

170 Central Park West

New York, New York

Sharon Lorenzo, January 2020



[i] Asma Naeem, Black Out: Silhouettes Now and Then, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, p. 6, 2018.

[ii] Ibid, p. 14.

[iii] Ibid, p. 6.

[iv] Penley Knipe, Shades of Black and White, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, p. 77, 2018.