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Before Photography, There Was the Silhouette Portrait

Author: Ryan Mach

Believe it or not, silhouettes played a crucial role in the evolution of portraiture, paving the way for Daguerreotypes and, eventually, photographic portraits.
When photography arrived on the scene in the early 19th century, the very idea of images with an authentic likeness to the material world was enough to wow audiences. Photos were a new and vivid way to remember loved ones, totally revolutionizing Victorian visual culture. But the portrait has a history that long precedes photography, and it’s one that’s worth investigating.

Tracing The History of Silhouettes

Starting in the 17th century, silhouettes were among the most popular forms of portraiture.
Capturing a subject’s profile in black, the quick ink, paint, and paper were cherished and delicate keepsakes that lasted until the birth of photography. While amateurs and Victorian women dominated silhouette making, professional silhouette makers existed too, using new machines that helped with precision, speed, and duplication.
The artform was born out of many inspirations, mostly notably Chinese paper cutting. Another influence was a popular story from Roman author Pliny the Elder, often referenced in art circles at the time. In the tale, a woman named Dibutade notices her lover’s shadow cast by candlelight, then traces it as a memento before he leaves on a journey. The Getty Museum cites this story as a pivotal one in the development of drawing as an art form.
Much cheaper and much easier to create than traditional, painted representations, silhouettes were widely accessible. Oil portraits, painted with complicated color and line, were created for the rich, and depicted elites in luxurious clothes. Silhouettes, rather, captured everyday people in everyday dress.
Because the images could be produced and reproduced easily, they had a particular appeal to immigrants and traveling merchants, people more likely to be separated from loved ones by distance.

Portraiture Gets Real

As time went on, the public became more invested in the idea of true likeness in portraiture. The success of the daguerreotype, an early form of photography, showed that more value was being put on realism than on a clean, uncluttered presentation.
The daguerreotype is a silver-coated polished copper plate that undergoes various chemical processes, ultimately producing a photographic image. The pictures took ten to twelve minutes to develop, meaning that subjects had to stay almost completely still for that amount of time, and the resulting images were often dark and unflattering.
Still, since they were small enough to hold in your hand and primarily used for portraits, daguerreotypes were valued and shared like silhouettes.
The daguerreotype sparked incredible possibility in the world of portraiture and laid a critical foundation for the photographic process. Varying trends have since surfaced in portrait photography, and thanks to today’s technology, the devices we’re taking photos with are only getting better at capturing our real likenesses.
And thanks to advancing printing technology, those photos are just as easy to share and recreate with loved ones as they were in the age of the silhouette. Printique professionally prints your portraits  or any photos, for that matter  and can make custom albums for elegant presentation and conservation. AdoramaPix’s unique finishes will make any image shine  even if all you need is a simple silhouette!