The Silhouette- In Georgian and Regency England

The silhouette was a picture of a person showing the outline only, filled usually with solid shadow, and most often, in profile. Its name comes from “Etienne de Silhouette,” a French controller general of finance who lived from 1709 to 1767. He was a notorious cheapskate, so that his name became synonymous with anything done or made cheaply, such as silhouettes, in addition to which he decorated a new house entirely (to save money) by cutting out little silhouettes from black paper.

The popularity of the silhouette was indeed in part because it was inexpensive (much less so than having a portrait painted, for example), and could be quickly produced, but also because it was a delightful form of art in its own right.

There are several types of silhouettes but the most common were cut from black paper with scissors. They could also be called “paper cuttings,” “shadows”, or, as in England, “shades.” Once the black shape was finished, the paper would then be glued to a white (or at least, lighter) background card and there was your finished likeness. The silhouette was also popular in America, where you could have one made on the street, such as in Philadelphia, for a penny, and within minutes. In size they resembled a small photograph, and once the daguerreotype was invented, the silhouette quickly decreased in popularity.

During the last decades of the eighteenth century (Georgian England) and into the early nineteenth, (the Regency) however, silhouettes were still the rage. In the courts of France and Germany they even replaced the miniature portrait. The miniatures, as I explain in a different article, were popular among dignitaries as diplomatic tools, and among all who could afford them, as personal tokens. The silhouette , by contrast, made portable likenesses of loved ones affordable for nearly anyone, and could even be used as wall decorations . All you needed was a person capable of creating them (a “profile portraitist”) and a few pence. In time, their popularity swung right back towards the rich, who, “commissioned silhouettes to be painted and encrusted with precious stones in jewelry and snuff boxes. Royalty commissioned porcelain dinner services with silhouettes. Common folk filled albums with silhouettes of family and friends. “

In addition, making silhouettes was a popular parlour game (called Shades), where anyone could try their hand at the art. The finished pieces may not have been works of art, but the making of them was surely a merry way to pass the time. (The game called “Shadows,” by contrast, was when one made shadow-images on the walls using mostly the hands; nothing was drawn or taken away from the exercise except a few laughs.)

The Concise Brittanica states that silhouettes were done “by drawing the outline cast by candlelight or lamplight,” which is surely how the average person did it. However, “once photography rendered silhouettes nearly obsolete, they became (merely) a type of folk art practiced by itinerant artists and caricaturists.”

Auguste Edouart, a Frenchman, cut full-length silhouettes. Another itinerant was the American boy silhouettist Master Hubard, who cut profiles in 20 seconds.

A beautiful example of a silhouette is one we have of Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister. (Use the link at the bottom to download my April ezine, which includes illustrations with this article.) Notice the lighter detailing? This was done by virtue of the fact that one’s “shade” could be reduced (“using a reducing instrument known as a pantograph”) then painted using “soot, or lamp black, on plaster or glass. After painting the face dead black, the hair, hats, ribbons, frills, and other essential accessories of the day, would have been ‘dragged’ out, using a fine brush, with progressively more and more diluted pigment.”

Another style of silhouette (with yellow background, see example in download) is Jane Austen”s self-portrait. Though more simply executed than the first, it is an excellent example of the art. According to one antiques’ website, the silhouette of the past would likely have been done in any of the following four formats:

  • Painted on paper, card, vellum, ivory, silk, or porcelain;
  • Painted in reverse on glass;
  • Hollow cut with the aid of a machine or, very rarely, by hand. In this process the figure is cut away from the paper thereby leaving a negative image. The paper outline is then backed with a contrasting color of paper or fabric; Or,

    Cut freehand with scissors or a sharp edge and then pasted to a contrasting (usually light-colored) background. “

    In England, from the late 18th into the early 19th century, (the stylistic Regency, in other words) a famous silhouette artist was John Miers (1756-1821). Preceding him was John Field. JC Lavater, a German who dabbled in science, used a machine to make what he called “scientific” silhouettes. (I suppose that “scientific” in this case, means “accurate”.)

    If you click the link below to download the ezine, you’ll see, as the final illustration to this article, a silhouette called, “Swinging Corpse,” which is an image from Bill Nye’s History of England, published in 1900; (Called, “A Reluctant Tax Payer”!) The image has been doctored (the background cut away) to make it a silhouette, but as I have also been doing a series on “Murder and Mayhem During the Regency”) I thought this particular silhouette was an appropriate closing image. (smile)