Antique Silhouettes

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An antique silhouette exhibit featuring silhouettes from the 1700s and 1800s has just opened in the Townhouse at The New Canaan Historical Society and continues through February 3rd.

The silhouette is a profile cut from white or black paper.  In the 18th century, it was a simple alternative for people who could not afford other forms of portraiture.  Silhouettes were named after Etienne de Silhouette, a French government official who in 1759 imposed such harsh economic demands that his name became synonymous with anything done very cheaply.  The quick outlines, created at virtually no cost, come to be known as portraits a la Silhouette.

Silhouettes were commonly cut with scissors, but there is evidence that knives and occasionally needles were used.  The introduction of mechanical devices such as the pantograph allowed the artist to copy, enlarge and reduce an image creating duplicates inexpensively.

The exhibit showcases many silhouettes from 1810 to 1840, regarded as the height of silhouette in American.  Many works in the style of the renowned and anonymous “Puffy Sleeve Artist,” with water colored bodies on black silhouette heads with elongated necks, are on display.  The invention of photography ended the popularity of the silhouette as a widespread form of portraiture.