Winn Silhouttes page 43

Types, Techniques and Analysis of Silhouettes

[box]This is the second installment of three on the Winn Family Silhouette Album. The first is here: The Winn Silhouette Album — Roots in Arlington, MA[/box]

There are three basic types of silhouettes: painted, hollow-cut or cut-out. Painted silhouettes were most frequently created using black ink or paint to apply the likeness to a base, usually paper or plaster and occasionally porcelain. ((Rutherford, Silhouette, 106.)) “Hollow-cut” and “cut-out” are terms used specifically for portraits created with paper. ((Snipe, P., “Paper Portraits: American Portrait Silhouettes,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 4 (2002): 204.)) With hollow-cut silhouettes, the image is cut away from the paper — usually a light color — leaving the negative or outside of the image that is then mounted over dark paper or fabric. Cut-out silhouettes are created when the artist removes the paper surrounding the outlined profile of the subject. The positive shape is then mounted onto a background; every silhouette in the Winn album falls into this category, cut from a light-weight, black paper with a glossy finish and mounted with an adhesive onto white cardstock. In addition to type, silhouettes, like painted portraits, are also categorized by form: full length images or busts. The Winn album is comprised entirely of bust length portraits, one hundred and fifty-seven in all. Silhouettes were often further embellished by the application of painted or “bronzed” details or, as was often the case in full-length images, mounted, onto painted or lithographed backgrounds, allowing the artist to create vignettes of multiple subjects. ((Snipe, “Paper Portraits,” 209.))

Silhouette Tracer
“Profile box” with stylus, used to trace the profile of sitter and emboss a small scale image onto paper which could then be cut by the artist. (Collection of Old Sturbridge Village)

Techniques used to create silhouettes ranged from free-hand cutting with scissors to tracings made with machines and devices created specifically for the tracing of profiles. Physiognotrace machines, originally brought to the United States by French artisans, traced the subjects profile and then reduced it for cutting. A physiognotrace developed by John Isaac Hopkins was used by Charles Wilson Peale in his Philadelphia museum, and was operated by one of his former slaves, Moses Williams, from 1802 to 1813. Physiognotraces and other mechanical devices were fairly cumbersome and were usually found in studios established in large cities, although smaller devices were developed were compact and portable, offering another option for itinerant silhouette artists beyond free-hand cutting. The introduction of a mechanism operated by an artisan that both traced and cut out the portraits increased the speed of production; the proliferation of the hollow-cut portraits found in collections can be attributed mostly to this innovation. ((Snipe, “Paper Portraits,” 215.))

The advent of photography in 1839 heralded the decline of the silhouette as the dominant portrait form. The allure of realistic likenesses captured first by daguerreotypes and made increasingly affordable by successive innovations in the photographic process gradually decreased the demand for silhouettes. By the latter half of the nineteenth-century, silhouettes were still being produced, but mostly as a display of adroit handwork by amateur artisans. Francis Endicott, a lithographer from New York, issued an “Album of Shadow Portraits” in 1871, that included a supply of silhouette paper and directions for cutting the portraits. (( A late revival of the silhouette production can also be attributed to the upswell of interest in “colonial art” that took place at the time of the celebration of the nation’s centennial. It is in this environment of national nostalgia that the Winn silhouette album was created.

An analysis of the one hundred and thirty-seven individuals portrayed in the silhouette album helps to the place the creation of the silhouettes in approximately a five year period, but with many of the portraits most likely created in the span of two or three years. Click any image to see a slideshow of them all.

Genealogical information on the individuals combined with an analysis of physiognomy of the profile help to date the profiles within a few years in some cases. For example, Louise Marsh (born 1872) was placed facing her mother, Ella Marsh on page 37 of the silhouette album (see slideshow above) has the small facial features and larger head typical of a toddler, helping to place that particular silhouette to the years 1874-1876 based on appearance of the subject. Several silhouettes in the album are of individuals shortly before death. On page 16 of the album are the silhouettes of Cyrus Cutter (1794-1875) and facing him, his wife Hannah (Hall) Cutter (1796-1878) (Mrs C Cutter in the album) showing their advanced age in their profiles and here again, their death dates help give a date by which those particular portraits must have been completed. Hannah Hall Cutter was the second cousin, once removed of Sarah (Prentiss) Winn and she and her husband resided two houses away from the Winn family on Summer Street in Arlington. The Cutters were two of forty-three individuals featured in the album that resided in the town of Arlington according to the U. S. Federal Census for 1870. ((Of the 137 silhouettes who were identified in writing in the album, I was able to locate 118 of them geographically after 1870 or by 1880 in the case of children born after 1870. Of those individuals, the greatest number lived in Arlington with a high cluster of individuals living a short distance from the Winn residence at 57 Summer Street.)) Their death dates, combined with the manner in which engaged or newly married women were recorded in the album — placed facing their fiancés/new husbands with maiden name only or married name in parenthesis next to full maiden name — offer further suggestions of the possible compilation of the images into the album around the year 1875. This discovery prompted investigation of other valuable, primary sources included in the Winn estate: a collection of almost over one hundred diaries written by four members of the Winn family.

[box]End of second installment. The final installment is here: Knowing Susanna Adams Winn.[/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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