Profiles in chiaroscuro
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now
Before photography spread the ability to have one’s likeness preserved, there were silhouettes. Cheaper and faster to produce than oil paintings, silhouettes exploded in popularity in the early 19th century, when itinerant silhouette artists advertised their skills in newspapers and drawing-room enthusiasts practiced tracing shadows by candlelight. In the early days of the republic, silhouettes were presented as a democratic art that all could participate in. Notwithstanding their French name, they were, in spirit, totally American.
The silhouette craze was short-lived, but its importance lives on. The National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, is revisiting this once ubiquitous, now obscure art form in Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, an exhibition that opened in May and continues through March 2019. It is accompanied by a catalog edited by curator Asma Naeem. Black Out, notes National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet in the catalog’s foreword, is the first major exhibition on the silhouette’s development; the form has long been viewed as a lower form of art than painted and sculpted works.
The “then” part of the exhibition includes 19thcentury works by prolific silhouettists Auguste Edouart, a Frenchman who sometimes embellished his silhouettes with chalk detailing and watercolor or lithograph backgrounds, and Martha Ann Honeywell, who signed her works “written without hands.” Honeywell was born with no hands and with only three toes on one foot. According to Laurel Daen, as cited in Alexander Nemerov’s catalog entry on Honeywell, the artist used her mouth, toes, and one of her arms to complete her works. Moses Williams, who was a former slave of painter Charles Willson Peale, was among the most important silhouette artists, creating many thousands of portraits at Peale’s museum in Philadelphia. According to Naeem, “The sight of Williams operating the physiognotrace [a tracing machine] at the Peale Museum on a daily basis, year
after year, offered a consistent, if somewhat tepid, rebuke to the proslavery discourse of suppression and forcible restraining of black people.”
Because of Williams’ primary role in silhouette making, and because silhouettes were made of slaves and recently captured Africans, such as the men who revolted on the slave ship Amistad, silhouettes in some ways provided representation that other art forms did not. But, Naeem writes, “The significance of enslaved individuals’ silhouettes was solely a proprietary one, one that operated across such distances as auction blocks, pseudoscientific lecterns, and cotton fields. In contrast, silhouettes of white Americans circulated as domestic heirlooms to be viewed within close confines in their maple frames or lovingly arranged albums.” In her essay on Williams’ silhouettes of Native Americans, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw discusses the ways in which silhouettes might “capture and codify racial difference” — for instance, in a portrait of a man named Wasconsca (tribe unclear) by either Williams or Peale that highlights “ethnographic details and accoutrements of cultural difference,” such as a lock of hair seemingly tied with a feather high upon Wasconsca’s head.
Scrutiny of American racial codification is brought into the “now” part of Black Out in works by Kara Walker, who uses the flat, seemingly innocuous silhouette to distort antebellum iconography into extraordinary scenes of violence and chaos. In the wall-spanning Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Savages and Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Civilians (both 2013), recognizable plantation tropes — such as the child with Topsy hair and the hoop-skirted Southern belle — are placed alongside disembodied heads, stabbings with spears, and a bomb with a burning fuse. Walker, who first debuted her work in the 1990s, said of silhouettes in a New Yorker article quoted in the catalog, “I was struck by the irony of so many of my concerns being addressed: blank/black, hole/whole, shadow/ substance, etc. (There’s also the great quote from Sojourner Truth: ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance.’)”
The exhibition’s other contemporary artists use the traditionally two-dimensional silhouette to, perhaps paradoxically, explore dimensionality. In Camille Utterback’s External Measures (2001-2008), an overhead camera captures the viewer’s image — a bird’seye silhouette — and projects her movements onto a screen of abstract graphics. Kristi Malakoff’s largescale depiction of children dancing around a maypole looks sculptural from some vantage points and flat from others. Kumi Yamashita creates individualized profiles of people not from materials but from the shadows cast by them. For Origami (2017), she meticulously shaped origami papers until their convexities cast shadows that form profiles. Naeem describes how Yamashita took photographs while traveling in New Mexico, eventually transforming subjects’ physical features into shadow ones. Origami is in the permanent collection of the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe; a similar work is featured in Black Out.
The silhouette form may seem dated, a relic of a complicated time in our young country’s history. But both its early and more recent manifestations show that when brought to light, our shadows can be revelatory.
Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, edited by Asma Naeem, is published by Princeton University Press. The exhibition continues at the National Portrait Gallery (npg.si.edu, 202-633-8300) through March 10, 2019.
Auguste Edouart: Josephine Clifton, 1842; lithograph, chalk, and cut paper on paper; courtesy National Portrait Gallery; top right, Raphaelle Peale or Moses Williams: Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles, circa 1803, cut paper and ink on paper, courtesy The Library Company of Philadelphia
Kristi Malakoff: Maibaum, 2009, paper and foam core; courtesy the artist