Winn silhouette Album

The Winn Silhouette Album — Roots in Arlington, MA

[box]This is part one of a three part series on the Winn silhouette album[/box]

Winn silhouette Album
Winn family silhouette album (Arlington Historical Society)

In 1999, the Arlington Historical Society (Arlington, MA) received a collection of artifacts, images and documents that belonged to the family of Albert and Sarah (Prentiss) Winn who settled in the town of West Cambridge (now Arlington) in 1835. Among the hundreds of objects included in the estate was a large, leather-bound album filled almost entirely with silhouettes. Many of the subjects portrayed by silhouette were identified, but the artist (or artists) who cut the small black portraits was not credited anywhere within the album. Family oral history attributed the creation of these small shadow images to the youngest child of Albert and Sarah P. Winn, Susanna Adams Winn (1852-1935) an artist whose oil paintings — both portraiture and landscapes — survive to this day in several private collections. An exploration of the Winn family silhouette album offers interesting insight into the social behaviors of a nineteenth-century middle-class family and a late Victorian revival of a popular form of portraiture from an earlier era.

The silhouette collection of the Winn family was housed in a late nineteenth-century album designed to hold and display four 2 3/8″ x 4 ¼” images per page, the standard size for carte-de-visite. First introduced in 1859, the carte-de-visite process allowed for multiple prints of the same image at a more affordable cost than earlier photographic processes such as daguerreotypes and tintypes and marked the first widespread use of paper photographs in portraiture. ((Carte De Visite: the Beginning of Modern Photography. (2010). Retrieved April 14, 2012, from Photo Tree: Affordable to purchase and easy to transport — the cardstock-mounted images could be enclosed in a posted letter — carte-de-visite portraiture encouraged the distribution and collection of these images among friends and families. Carte-de-visite albums were a common fixture in middle-class parlors across the country, functioning both as a conversation piece for visitors and as an elegant display of one’s familial and social connections. ((L. L. Stevenson, “Around the Parlor Table,” in The Victorian Homefront: Amerian Thought and Culture 1860-1880. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 2 & 4.)) The albums, featuring die-cut sleeves to hold images, changed over time in keeping with the changes in photographic technology including more substantial pages designed to hold the thicker carte-de-visite and some albums offering a variety of enclosure sizes with the advent of the larger cabinet card in 1866. The Winn album is unusual in that instead of the expected photographic images, paper silhouettes were housed in most of the enclosures; portraits that, even without the identifying labels, clearly depict male subjects with various styles of facial hair and women with fuller, upswept braided hairstyles common in the latter part of the nineteenth-century, long after the heyday of silhouette portraiture had passed. ((Also included in the album were two 1/6 plate tintypes, each measuring 2 5/8″ x 3 1/4″. The subjects depicted in the tintypes were documented by the family as “W. A. W., Harvard Soph.” [William Adams Winn] and “W. A. W. and S. A. W.” [William Adams Winn and Susanna Adams Winn].))
[quote]The prevalence and relative affordability of silhouettes ensured that shadow portraits of relatives were a fixture in American parlors throughout the nineteenth century in a society that placed high value on family[/quote]
Though likely originating in elaborate Chinese and Turkish paper-cutting traditions, the earliest references to portraits cut from paper can be found English writings on two likenesses of King William and Queen Mary produced in the late seventeenth-century. ((Emma Rutherford, Silhouette ( New York: Rizzoli, 2009), 21.)) Shadow portraits, life-size tracings taken from the actual shadow of a subject were also common in the eighteenth century; one of the earliest portraits in the collection of the Arlington Historical Society is a shadow portrait of The Rev. Samuel Cooke (1709-1792). ((Emily Jackson, Silhouettes: A History and Dictionary of Artists (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1981), 2)) Originally referred to as “shades” or “profile miniatures,” the term “silhouette” is connected to an unpopular eighteenth-century French minister of finance — one Étienne de Silhouette — whose miserly state programs prompted contemporaries to use the expression “a la silhouette” as a description of anything pared down for purposes of economy and who was himself reported to have decorated his chateau in hand-cut portraits after his retirement from office. Profiles cut from paper offered a cheap alternative to portrait miniatures painted on porcelain or canvas in the eighteenth century, and though often criticized as a pastime for amateurs during the eighteenth century a change in taste towards simpler, more classical lines following the excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum elevated the silhouettist to the status of artist.

In America, the embrace of neoclassicism as an aesthetic and as an element in identity-building in the new nation helped to propel silhouette portraiture to popularity. Many silhouettists were itinerant artists who traveled the countryside, putting up handbills to advertise their services in each town they visited. The popularity of these likenesses in New England attracted many shade artists at the end of the eighteenth and into the early nineteenth century and fueled enough interest to support entire exhibitions devoted to the art. Moses Chapman (1783-1821), one of the earliest professional silhouettists in America worked mostly in Massachusetts and French-born August Amante Constant Fidèle Edouart (1789-1861) created 613 likenesses during his stay in Boston, including one of famous poet and Cambridgian, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Edouart’s work is not only important because of the quantity of likenesses he produced during his ten year stay in the United States, but because he named and dated a duplicate cut from each of his sittings, resulting in a amazing record in portraiture of over 3,800 residents of the country. The prevalence and relative affordability of silhouettes ensured that shadow portraits of relatives were a fixture in American parlors throughout the nineteenth century in a society that placed high value on family.

[box]End of first installment. The next one is here: Types, Techniques and Analysis of Silhouettes. It include photos of a selected set of silhouettes from the album.[/box]

About Lisa Welter

A life-long resident of Arlington, Lisa is a former administrator of the Arlington Historical Society and currently serves on the Collections Committee; she has been researching Menotomy/West Cambridge/Arlington families for the past fifteen years with special attention to the Winn family.

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