Deceptively simple. Remarkably illuminating. Silhouette art in new exhibitions at the Mississippi Museum of Art provide much more than a shadow of the past.
Stories that unfold in delicate and detailed black profiles are colorful, inclusive, diverse and dramatic, in an art form that democratized portraiture and predated photography. In contemporary artists’ hands, the silhouette finds new traction — in a jarring exploration of slavery and stereotypes, as a digital work that invites interaction, and more.
“Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now” from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery remains on display through August 25 at the Mississippi Museum of Art, and is the first major museum exhibition to explore the art form.
The museum-curated companion exhibition, “A Closer Look: Silhouette Artists in Antebellum Mississippi,” highlights work by early 19th century “scissor artists” and their winter social-season visits to New Orleans, Natchez and Vicksburg.
“Black Out” was conceived and curated by Asma Naeem, a former National Portrait Gallery curator, now chief curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Silhouettes — small, paper cutout portraits also known as profiles, shades or shadows — represented a sea change in portraiture. “They were strikingly affordable, and this was at a time when painted portraits were so expensive, they were only available to elites — to white men, sometimes to their wives, sometimes in particularly wealthy families, their children,” says Brandon Fortune, National Portrait Gallery chief curator. Quickly-created silhouettes were accessible to many.
“Black Out” focuses on that accessibility. Also considered: the popularity of an art form that — at a time of such strife about slavery — made everyone black; and, the way some in America’s history were literally blacked out, their stories untold.
The 1796 “Flora,” a life-size profile of an enslaved African American woman likely based on a candlelight silhouette, was found in former slave quarters in the home of her owner, along with her bill of sale, and “somehow traveled through time … it’s really resonant,” Fortune says.
“Silhouettes were fascinating in the time of their creation, in the late 18th and early 19th century, because at the time, many people believed strongly that you could tell something about the moral character of a person, from their face,” she says. “There was a rage for silhouettes.”
They were mostly commissioned as a portrait of self or family, but in some cases, such as those of enslaved people, they documented property. A runaway slave advertisement for an African American man, Sancho, in an 1807 newspaper includes a rare silhouette likeness of the man, who was owned by Winthrop Sargent (first governor of the Mississippi Territory).
Auguste Edouart is the artist behind the bulk of the exhibition’s 19th century silhouettes. Most subjects were people of means but occasionally, he made silhouettes of people who were more marginalized, Fortune says — enslaved women, those from other countries and people with disabilities, for instance. “Black Out” brings those to the fore.
Small, precise silhouettes reward an intimate view. Only a closeup look reveals the exacting details of the scissors’ cuts and even, as in Edouart’s silhouette of Laura Dewey Bridgman, the fine chalk lines that detail her braids, dress ruffles and the sash covering her eyes. She had lost her sight, hearing and more from scarlet fever at age 2; her instruction at Perkins School for the Blind, particularly after Charles Dickens publicized her achievements, made her a celebrity. She helped teach others, too, including Oliver Caswell, whose portrait is also in “Black Out.”
Portraitist Thomas Sully and President John Quincy Adams are among the well-knownAmericans captured in a collection that also includes foreign diplomats, a hypnotist and more, often with a telling prop to identify avocation, profession or art. Silhouettes were cut from a sheet of paper, folded in half, blackened on the inside. “The artist worked from the back, using a pair of embroidery scissors and little snippets,” museum deputy director and chief curator Roger Ward explains the process. “Quickly turning the sheet of paper, he would cut it from the back so the last cut he made was, snip, at the top of the head or at the bottom of the feet — so you have two.”
In the exhibition’s “Now” section, large installations by three women artists tackle the silhouette tradition in today’s terms, in ways that unsettle, provoke, intrigue and charm.
In Kara Walker’s hands, imagery and stock characters from plantation life turn graphic, nightmarish and compelling as they address racial stereotypes and the violence enacted on enslaved African Americans. “That is her point. She wants us to be very uncomfortable,” Fortune says. The artist’s “Auntie Walker” wall samplers and laser-cut black steel figures challenge viewers to grapple with the nation’s painful past.