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  • The Last SilhouettistThe Artwork of William Henry Brown

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William Henry Brown (1808–1883), Portrait of a Woman before a Window, before 1860, cut paper against lithograph background, Mary Martin Fund, 1984, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

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By the time William Henry Brown started wielding his scissors in the 1830s, the art of the silhouette had already had a long history and was nearly out of vogue. Its golden era had been the late eighteenth century, but now photography was vying to replace the art form as a quick and easily duplicated medium for capturing likeness. Still, and despite its rather homely origins, William Brown pursued the cut-out silhouette to produce genuinely beautiful pieces of artwork, moving it from the realm of craft to art.

In the mid-nineteenth century, if the artist was willing to travel, he could still make a modest career making skilled paper cutouts. The life of an itinerant silhouettist suited Brown, who enjoyed visiting towns and cities up and down the Eastern seaboard for a few weeks at a time. As a freehand cutter, he didn’t need the cumbersome mechanical tracing devices his competition used. Armed with paper and shears, he could set up shop anywhere. He must have been socially adept in order to secure commissions from celebrity clients as well as ordinary folk. He also took a keen interest in capturing, in close detail, innovations in the trains, ships, and fire engines of his day.

The known details of Brown’s early life are sparse. Born in 1808 in Charleston, South Carolina, he moved to Philadelphia, where he trained as an engineer. At a young age, he began cutting silhouettes; his first were full-length pieces of famous visitors to the city. He wrote in his book The History of the First Locomotives in America that from his earliest recollections he had a rare talent for cutting out of paper a precise likeness of a person or object with a single glance. He also worked quickly, taking less than five minutes to complete an image. His love of art, coupled with his acumen for paper cutting, eclipsed his interest in engineering, and by the early 1930s he had devoted himself to a career in silhouettes.

In the eighteenth century, cutting likenesses was not considered a skilled trade, and the images were referred to by dismissive terms—“black shades,” “shadow portraits,” or “miniature cuttings.” The English adopted the more sophisticated-sounding “silhouette,” though it was not in full usage until the nineteenth century. The craft’s namesake was Étienne de Silhouette, an economist who served as France’s controller-general of finances in 1759, charged with the task of reining in the country’s ruinous finances. He lasted eight months, ousted by the ruling class [End Page 98]

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William Henry Brown (1808–1883), Portrait of Martin Van Buren, 1844, lithograph with tinted stone, bequest of Charles Allen Munn, 1924, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

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William Henry Brown (1808–1883), first of four panels from Hauling the Whole Week’s Picking, 1842, paper collage with watercolor, The Historic New Orleans Collection

for his austerity measures targeted at them. He spent his forced retirement in the French countryside cutting paper profiles that were used as inexpensive interior decor. In time, his name came to mean “on the cheap” and later was used as a synonym for “shades” since they reduced a person’s visage to its simplest form and were the most inexpensive type of portraiture available.

While only the wealthy could afford the time and expense of a painted portrait, silhouettes were low-priced. A sitting cost pocket change, and, if done with a tracing device, the subject had a number of copies that could be given away as mementos. As the practice grew in popularity, new methods and techniques were used to maintain interest in this seemingly simple art form. With hand-detailing and a hint of bronzing, [End Page 100] silhouettes acquired an air...


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