Friday, February 13, 2009

Now Taking Reservations For Sittings For Your Own Silhouette Portrait

With few affordable heirloom quality gifts out there, The Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum is now taking reservations for appointments for sittings for handmade silhouette portraits by Jean Comerford of Portraits in Silhouette of Hardwick, MA on Saturday, April 4, 2009, 10AM - 2PM at 32 Fields Pond Road in Orrington, ME. This mother daughter business features a portrait of a famous New Englander in Yankee magazine each month. They are among a handful of artists nationwide who continue this folk art tradition popular in the US and Europe from the late 18th until the mid-19th century.

According to Dr. Robert Schmick, volunteer director of educational programs at The Curran Homestead, the silhouette portraits done by Ms. Comerford involve a set of very sharp and precise cutting scissors which she uses to snip out a profile of her subject from black paper which is then mounted on white card. What seems most amazing to watch is that through her skill she achieves a likeness in a matter of minutes. I have a double portrait of my son and I and one of my son alone framed that I cherish. The cost is $29 a portrait and $10 for copies. For an additional fee framing is available onsite. Part of the proceeds will benefit The Curran Homestead.

Schmick added that silhouette portraits were available largely by itinerants as late as the 1870s, but they were most popular during the earlier antebellum era before photography became widespread. Framed family silhouettes would have been among the furnishings of rural Mainers throughout the 19th century, and several would not have looked out of place in the Curran House. The State Museum in Augusta has had a large collection of silhouettes of antebellum Mainers on display.

Benjamin Franklin referred to the folk art form as “shade” in a letter to his wife, and this, along with “profile,” were common identifications among others in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic. The art form’s current name comes from Etienne de Silhouette, a general controller for the French government, who had the distinction of being both economic to a fault and passing much time snipping out profiles from paper. The popular and inexpensive shadow portraits were known in England by the name “silhouette” by the 1820s as evidenced by the advertisements of Auguste Edouart. Although single portraits with white backgrounds were the norm, this artist was among those who created elaborate backgrounds with ink washes especially for compositions that included multiple familial portraits like one dating from 1842 at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Silhouettes were both cut and painted, and there were a number of ingenious methods employed from the start to achieve the desired profile likeness. Some required far less skill than others. “Shadowgraph” was yet another given name for the “likeness in bust” that characterized most examples, and this was derived from a mechanical device that cut out a profile in the middle of a sheet of paper. The hollowed out sheet was then adhered to a black or colored sheet that accentuated the profile. There were also full length portraits of individuals available too, and some of these are almost comical in their exaggeration of individual characteristics. The early American artist Charles Willson Peale is known to have offered silhouettes portraits at one of his museum in Philadelphia, one of America’s first.

Portraits in America were largely realized by itinerant artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, excluding the few who found early patronage and fame. These itinerants were known to practice a variety of skills to make a living from their town to town and sometimes farmhouse to farmhouse travels. Broadsides and the local papers would advertise the availability of their skills for hire, and exhibitions of their silhouettes were not uncommon at the local inn. With the “sheet method,” a life size shadow produced by candle light, would be traced and then reduced to a preferred size through the use of a contraption called a “pantograph.” Miniature profiles could be produced for lockets or to adorn snuffbox lids. The price of a silhouette, as advertised by William King of Salem, MA in 1804, was “twenty five cents for two likenesses of one person.” King claimed to have traversed New England plying his skills in Boston, New Hampshire, and as far north as Portland. Within a two year period, he advertised that he had made some “twenty thousand profiles,” and if that wasn’t enough of a boast he further claimed to do a likeness in “six minutes.”

Such boasting and showmanship was not uncommon for these “hollow cutters,” as they were often called, incorporating as much flourish and theatrics as they could while doing portraits often before a crowd. This propensity was no better exemplified than by the “Master Sanders K.G. Nellis,” a paraplegic, who with “scissors in toes cut valentines and watch papers very ingeniously, and will also cut the likeness of persons very correctly.” He would also shoot bow and arrow, play the cello, and write with the only limbs he was born with according to an 1836 Salem newspaper advertisement.

For additional information about silhouette sittings or to make a reservation for your sitting on April 4, 2009, 10AM-2PM contact: Robert Schmick at 207-843-5550, or by email: .

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