Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Lost Art of Silhouetting

      In the modern age, when photographic art has achieved so high a degree of perfection, most people do not stop to think that less than a century ago there did not exist any photographer at all. When our ancestors wanted to have a portrait made they had a limited choice of methods. They could have it painted, very circumstantially, in colors, for one thing; or they could content themselves with a silhouette, cut out of black paper. Of course, the latter method was the cheaper, and subsequently it became highly popular, until photography was invented.
The way in which the German Scientist, Lavater
took a silhouette.
      The word silhouette, which has been merged with most languages, was at first meant as an expression of contempt for the French Chancellor of the Exchequer, Etienne de Silhouette, who instead of adjusting the money affairs of his country, spent his time in decorating the walls of his castle with shadow portraits of his guests. The French people said that "his pictures were just as black and empty as the French Treasury." Since that time black portraits of this kind have been called "silhouettes."
      Years before the German scientist Lavater had occupied himself with drawing profiles. With the help of a wax candle he produced a shadow of his subject in full size on a white sheet, on which he then traced the outline. Later he reproduced the picture on a smaller scale, and the portrait was finished.
      The correct way of taking a silhouette is however, to cut it out of black paper by hand. It requires a great deal of mechanical skill, but at the same time a beautiful result can be accomplished when a clever person wields the shears.
      In the nineteenth century it was quite an industry to clip silhouettes. One single man, August Edouart, who lived most of the time in America, cut out nearly 100,000 portraits, and still he was one of the few who understood how to give the silhouettes the true imprint of real art.
      The greatest genius in the field of this special branch of art who ever lived was Paul Konewka. Although he died when only 31 years old he developed such dexterity in silhouette cutting that he became known all over the world. He combined a fine decorative sense with wonderful adroitness in the use of scissors. He always carried with him a pair of scissors especially constructed for this use, and he cut with such deftness that he never needed to look at the scissors.
      The most celebrated among his silhouettes are the illustrations of "Faust" and Shakespear's dramas. His figures are so charming, his portraits so animated, that even the most particular critics must yield them admiration. In any case, this black art has fostered one great master, has given lasting fame to at least one name -- Paul Konewka.

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