The invention of photography did not come about until the 1840s. So the only method to preserve an image of a loved one was by having an artist paint a portrait or make a sculpture (very costly) or to have a silhouette (a profile outline) of the person done by a silhouette artist (less expensive). This artist could paint the black facial and shoulder outline or cut it with scissors. The cost was equal in 1800 to about 60 cents.

Painting or cutting profiles by hand may have been a skill, but when “machines” for tracing a client’s face and shoulders were developed, this ‘technology’ became the rage for inexpensive profile artists: they could impress their clients with the latest device.

Whether the machine cast a client’s shadow on the wall or traced the face’s shape, the late 1700’s and early 1800’s were filled with artists looking to gain clientele. With the heavy competition for portraits, even the name of the portraiture began to change – from its origins of “shadow portraits”, the common name, to the new exotic name of profile portraits, “silhouettes”.

Once the portrait could be done with photography, the silhouette portrait began to fall out of popularity. But silhouettes were still done in the 1840s to 1860 because it was expensive for a photo, about $10.

In more recent times, the art of hand silhouettes has returned, a great decorating method, not just a profile but of the whole person or a full scene.

Photos: Oliver and Abigail Leland-late 1700s; machine used to trace for a silhouette; Pres. George Washington in 1796; a Quaker couple in 1700s in Philadelphia and a silhouette portrait of a young lady.

Related Blogs:

Portraits of Your Ancestors

Age of Person in a Portrait

Smile for the Camera

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