April 12, 2013

Colonial Quakers and Silhouettes

In colonial times it was fashionable for wealthy Americans to have paintings or small miniatures made of loved ones. For many this was prohibitively expensive but middle class families, especially those in the country, could have silhouettes made of their family members relatively inexpensively.

A silhouette, known then as "profiles" or "shades", were line portraits with no internal detail. Many of these were cut from paper and glued to contrasting paper but some were painted. They typically were 3 to 5 inches in length. Varying methods were used to produce the profile, some used light to trace the shadow of a portrait sitter, others were drawn quickly by artists.

One popular method of creating silhouettes involved folding the paper into four so that the cutter could make four copies of the same silhouette at once. These could then be given away or exchanged. Silhouettes could also be easily traced and copied if more were needed.     

Along with country folk and the middling class, silhouettes appealed to Quakers, even wealthy ones, due to the simplistic nature of the art and the cost. Quakers felt that silhouettes did not emphasize class or vanity as many paintings did.

Silhouettes were also of interest at the time as theories of physiognomy at the time claimed that a person's character could be read through the face.  Silhouettes were popular until the invention and spread of the Daguerreotype in the 1840s.

In modern times, silhouettes are made easily using photography and computers. There are many tutorials showing how to do it. But if you wanted to do it the old fashioned way, profiles tend to be relatively easy for people to draw.  


Clark, Joanna. "Quaker Silhouettes." The Friend: The Quaker Magazine. http://www.thefriend.org/article/quaker-silhouettes (accessed April 11, 2013).

Verplank, Anne. "The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia." Winterthur Portfolio 43, No. 1 (2009): 41-79.


  1. I don't know where to start... so I'll just start. :D
    There's this huuuuuuge part of the Czech culture connected to the fictional genius Jára Cimrman. It originated in a radio program in the 1960s and grew into a theatre and many theatre plays. Anyway - Jára Cimrman allegedly lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. We have booklets with the scripts of the plays, accompanied by pictures, and in each of those, there's also a hypothetical silhouette of Jára Cimrman. The point of course being that you don't really know what he looked like. Now that I know how popular silhouettes were, I think it was really clever of the creators to use this art form to represent the unknown Cimrman...

  2. That sounds really neat! I'm going to have to look into that.


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