All things Victorian are the rage today, even the long-gone art of silhouettists

December 15, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

During the 18th century, people who couldn't afford to have their portraits painted might have had their silhouettes done. The classic black and white profiles became family treasures.

Old silhouettes are prized by antique and art collectors today. If you have old ones, consider yourself fortunate.

The profiles became known as silhouettes in dubious honor of Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), the French minister of finance in 1759 who tried to enforce extreme economy on the country in order to replenish a treasury exhausted by war. His policies were so unpopular that he was forced to resign.

During this period, Paris fashion took on a frugal character. Men wore coats without folds; snuffboxes were made of plain wood rather than porcelain; instead of painted portraits, artists drew outlines or cut out profiles. All these fashions were called a la Silhouette, but the name survived only as applied to the profiles.

Another slant on the history of silhouettes is provided by Anthony Curtis, author of "There's a Fortune in Your Attic," a Lyle Publications price guide published this year.

He writes that silhouettes "first appeared around 1750 and were drawn either free-hand or by tracing the shadow of a profile on a piece of black paper. Later, more sophisticated techniques developed (such as a tracing and cutting machine invented in France). Silhouette art flourished among amateurs and was regarded as quite a drawing room accomplishment."

When silhouettes first became popular, they were called shades or shadows. In 1767, Benjamin Franklin wrote home from London that he was sending "the little shade that was copied from the great one." According to the "Concise Encyclopedia of American Antiques" (Hawthorn Books), this "great" shade apparently was life-size and was made by Patience Wright, a New Jersey Quaker then established in England.

In his 1991 guide, Mr. Curtis reports that antique silhouettes sell for thousands of dollars at auction. An August Edouart (1788-1861) silhouette of three children with toys, cat and dog sold for $2,100 at Skinner. At Christie's, a silhouette of Isabella Beetham (circa 1753-1825) sold for $3,498. And a rectangular silhouette by William Welling of a husband and wife taking tea, signed and dated 1874, was auctioned for $4,832 at Phillips.

You can have silhouettes of family and pets made for a good deal less. Exposures catalog, which specializes in accessories for photographs, offers a silhouette service. Send a profile snapshot (3 1/2 by 5 inches to 8 by 10 inches) of your subject to Exposures, 2800 Hoover Road, Stevens Point, Wis. 54481. You can call (800) 222-4947 any time. A machine will take a message if no one's there.

Exposures hired artist Deborah O'Connor to make silhouettes from photographs. A 5-inch paper silhouette costs $25 with a mat, or $42 for a mat and gold-finish wood frame.

Ms. O'Connor, 40, is a Wakefield, R.I., resident. She said she's been practicing this art for about 14 years. Several years ago she went to Miami to cut silhouettes at the Dade County Youth Fair.

"There are fewer than 30 silhouettists in the country, and I've only met or heard about eight or 10 or them," she said. "Silhouettes are done at Disney World, but they are pretty basic . . . not too many details.

"I intended to be a portrait painter but I didn't want to do portraits at fairs because they are time-consuming," she said. "I wanted something that was quick, and a silhouette is a valid piece of artwork. I didn't realize when I started that silhouettes would be in such demand."

Ms. O'Connor thinks the "revival of Victorian things" has helped make silhouettes popular again.

"It's ironic that photography put silhouettists out of business, but now silhouettists work from photographs. I think silhouettes have their own special quality. They tend to capture the essence of a person; all the extraneous details that date a photograph are gone."

In the tradition of silhouettists of old, Ms. O'Connor travels the land demonstrating her art at museums, historical societies and craft fairs. Using the freehand cutting technique and working only with scissors, it takes her five minutes or so to complete a silhouette of great detail, including wispy ends of hair.

Ms. O'Connor said she studied for several years with an artist in Providence and attended Boston Museum School of Fine Arts for one year. As a silhouettist, "I am self-taught."

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