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Shades, Profiles and Silhouettes: The Collection of Paula Peyraud

A reserved librarian from Chappaqua, New York, Miss Paula Peyraud was an avid collector of silhouettes, amassing over sixty examples purchased from important collections, including the collections of Sue McKechnie, Ronald Kilner, Maud Wilmot, and the Gutteridge and Ransford collections. Miss Peyraud’s collection features work by many of the best silhouettists, including Auguste Edouart, Charles Rosenberg, Lady Louisa Kerr, Mrs. Sarah Harrington, Francois Torond, and John Miers. Stair Galleries is pleased to be offering the Peyraud Silhouette Collection in a series of auctions over the course of our 2016 season.

Known also as a profile or shade, a silhouette is the image of a person, or object, cut out of a black piece of paper to represent the person as a solid shape. The word silhouette derives from the name of the mid-18th century French finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, whose favorite hobby was cutting paper shadow portraits. The phrase à la Silhouette grew to mean “on the cheap” due to the minister’s financial conservatism. Even after the term silhouette was introduced, the term shade was still widely used; Queen Victoria called her 1834 album a ‘collection of shades’.

The three basic types of silhouettes are painted, hollow-cut or cut-out. In addition to type, silhouettes are also categorized by form, whether they are full length images or busts. Special scissors for silhouette cutting were made in Germany and were small and sharp with long handles, but most people used whatever was available to them. Knives, styluses and needles were also used. As early as the Renaissance, various mechanical devices were invented to more accurately create outline drawings. Free-hand cutting was supplanted by physiognotrace machines and a myriad of similar, more compact and portable devices.

The silhouette functioned as a kind of keepsake or relic, as articulated in a flyer for the City Portrait Gallery in London. The handbill proclaimed that the way “to catch single men… [is to] present him with your miniature, set round with virgin gold!!! Which, if his love be true and pure, he to his heart will fold. Emotions thence of tenderness will mount from heart to head and make him wish e’re long to press the original instead.” The gallery advertised “miniatures and profiles calculated to advance the above landable purpose.”
A flyer for the City Portrait Gallery in London proclaimed that the way “to catch single men… [is to] present him with your miniature, set round with virgin gold!!! Which, if his love be true and pure, he [would] long to press the original instead.” The gallery advertised “miniatures… calculated to advance the above landable purpose.”
Fancier, more high-brow silhouettes were sculpted in wax or painted on ivory, card, plaster, or glass, and housed in decorative miniature cases. These kinds of silhouettes could be decorated with gold color or adhered to gouache or lithographed backgrounds depicting domestic scenes or picturesque landscapes. More expensive silhouettes decorated jewelry, snuff boxes, contemporary dishware and mourning cards. Silhouettes were presented and kept largely in albums or scrapbooks. Album compilation was particularly popular among the Quakers. However, the great French silhouettist Auguste Edouart advised against this practice and told his patrons to frame their silhouettes.

Silhouette artists were often called profilists, and their silhouette work had many names, such as ‘miniature cuttings’, ‘black profile’, ‘scissortypes’, ‘skiagrams’, ‘shadowgraphs’, ‘shadow portraits’, or ‘black shade’. Auguste Edouart called himself the “black shade man.” He chose this title to be ironic, as he felt a great deal of disdain towards other lower-class artists who had learned and were practicing his craft, whose work was inferior to his own.

The history of shades and silhouettes dates back to the earliest renderings of figures. Solid black figures on a light background were depicted in the earliest cave paintings. Egyptian hieroglyphs could even be seen as early silhouettes. Ancient Greeks painted dancers, musicians, and wrestlers on pottery as solid black figures, using sunlight or candlelight to draw the outline of a person’s shadow. Profiles on antique coins and medals were also an influence for the 18th century silhouette.

The silhouette had been a story-telling device for centuries. Very early Middle Eastern and Indonesian cultures used shadow theaters with cut-out figures to illustrate the spirits of dead ancestors. Scherenschnitte, the craft of paper-cutting in Germany, originating in the 16th century, utilized the paper-cut figure as a kind of puppet for stories, rather than as a portrait. Later, in the 19th century, Hans Christian Anderson embellished his oral storytelling sessions with paper figures.

In the 18th century, the silhouette was the first type of portraiture available to the masses, for those who could not afford the expense of oil portraits. Neoclassical silhouettes became more popular as a reaction to the excessively ornate Baroque and Rococo styles that preceded it. Interest in the silhouette also grew due to the popularity of the “science” of Physiognomy in the late 18th century. This “science” promoted theories that moral and spiritual character could be examined in the human face and countenance. During this time, collecting silhouettes became a widespread craze, particularly among internationally famous figures like Goethe.

The demand for silhouettes died down after 1810, but then Edouart revitalized interest in the 1830s, cutting portraits of some of the most influential people of the time. The novelty once again declined with the advent of photography in 1839. Daguerreotypes could better capture a more realistic likeness; this transformed silhouettes into more of a folk art past time.

The diversity of the silhouettists in Miss Peyraud’s collection makes for an interesting history. Both professional artists and amateurs engaged in this craft. Countless common folk made silhouettes. Their names were often lost to history and they are identified by their work, as in the case of the Puffy Sleeve Artist, a woman who cut a silhouette of a young woman in a dress with puffy sleeves. The Puffy Sleeve Artist was an amateur silhouettist who also had jobs as a tavern keeper, a woodworker and a cider maker.

Acclaimed contemporary artist Kara Walker works in paper silhouettes, constructing the cut-outs to comment on race and gender relations. She has taken the tradition of straight-forward silhouette portraits and made them no longer just a mode of rendering likeness, but a thoroughly new and powerful narrative of slavery and race.

Silhouettes, while rooted in the past, feel very modern in design. There is a contemporary cleanliness, freshness and minimalism to the sharp black and white outline. Miss Paula Peyraud’s collection is an impressive one, harkening back to a pre-photographic past while at the same time presenting a powerful pre-cursor to the modern image.

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