Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Silhouette came from France........

Just one camera-snap today -  and you've got a lifelike portrait of a person. It is difficult to understand how complicated and costy it was to be portrayed just 300 years ago. When people died, their looks lived on only in the memory of family and friends.

In the middle of the 1700s a cheap and easy way to portray people was invented. It actually started in France as a social game. People were asked to stand with their side to a wall - and the light of an oil lamp cast a shadow of the profile upon a piece of paper upon the wall. The shadow was sketched quickly, and the paper was cut by the line. Now they had a lifelike portrait in profile of the person. It was common to colour the paper with black printing ink, so it looked like a shadow. The method never became popular in France however. It was considered as something for poor people only,  but a Frenchman did manage to give it a name.

France was on the edge of ruin from wars and extravagant consumption at the royal court. The Minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette had to put the State salaries heavily down,  which made him rather unpopular. He had many shadow-portraits in his home; people could see them through his windows from outside in the street - and everything trashy and poor were - because of his reductions -  by people designated  "a la Silhouette". The shadow portraits were called  "a la Silhouette" = poor man's pictures. And by the way these pictures were only known as silhouettes.

The silhouette came to honor and dignity in Germany, but people were admittedly a little tired of those large black shadow portraits, which might look a little brooding, filling an entire wall - and a method was invented to put them down in size. The large shadow portraits could be minimized by using a pantograf, a very simple drawing device. But to use a pantograf required some skill, and gradually arose some professional silhouette-makers who earned their living by travelling the country to do portraits of people.

But it was not just to get your portrait. A new dimension came - the silhouette became science. The Swiss priest Johan Caspar Lavater had discovered that you from the human profile could read his qualities, and he published a large four-volume work with engravings of silhouettes, where he made a diagnosis from each silhouette. He measured the height and the slope of the forehead , the lenght of the nose and the receding or protruding of the chin.  He was of the opinion that the forehead was the mirror of the sense, the nose expressed the moral value of the person, while the chin and the mouth showed the animal qualities.

People from far and away joined his ideas. Kings, princes, scientists and artists sent silhouettes to him to get them deciphered, and the poet Goethe was one of his greatest admirers. He travelled with Lavater for several years, sketching and minimizing silhouettes and translating his works into English and French. He even took part in constructing a special suitable chair, where a silhouette had to be drawn. Goethe's own love of youth began with a silhouette, and this later became "The Sorrows of Young Werther".

After an embarassing detection of Lavater the great interest and the belief in his ideas declined. But the silhouette itself had become a precise portrait for little money.

Jane Austen
a young Beethoven
The silhouette-portraits came to Denmark. In the beginning some German silhouette-makers went north, but gradually Danish silhouette makers could do the silhouettes just as well, and about the year 1800 this way of making a picture was spread all over the country. Commonly the silhouette maker offered a large number, like 10 silhouettes, at a discounted price. When people wrote a letter, they could put a portrait of themselves in it - and in this way the silhouettes were spread all over the country and across the borders. In family books from that time are portraits of the great personalities of Europe. Many collected them, especially silhouettes of Goethe and his circle were popular.

The travelling silhouette-makers were creative when they came to a manor. They proposed to cut not only the family members, but also put all the silhouettes together in one big composition for a family portrait in natural environment. It might be the manor garden with a famous building from the area in the background - or a family pose in the finest room.  The silhouette maker took his time while he resided at the manor - his work on the family picture might go on for weeks.

There was a certain prestige in owning one of those big family portraits. Both the rich bourgeoisie and the aristocracy and even the royal family had those shadow portraits on their walls.

A special artistic and costy kind of silhouette developed gradually: the hinter-glass paintings, where the picture was painted on the back of the glass. The silhouette maker first painted the black silhouettes - and then he added the background.

In the late 1830s this all ended, when the photography arrived. The silhouette turned hopelessly oldfashinoned. This lasted for 40 years, but then some very good silhouette makers cut free hand silhouettes without drawing the shadow picture -  and people saw that the silhouette was not just a primitive form of portraying but an independent art form. The history of the silhouette had more nuances than expected.

H.C. Andersen The shepherdess and the chimney sweeper.   

Source: archaeological magazine SKALK 3/2007, Jørgen Duus
silhouette-copies from wikipedia.

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