Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - May - 2023 Issue

Silhouettes & Paper Cuts from Susanne Schulz-Falster Rare Books and Antiquariat Elvira Tasbach


Silhouettes & Paper Cuts.

Susanne Schulz-Falster Rare Books of Woodstock, England, and Antiquariat Elvira Tasbach of Berlin have issued a joint catalogue entitled Silhouettes & Paper Cuts. Silhouettes are mostly black, shadow profile face portraits, lacking facial features beyond what can be seen from a profile outline. Despite their being so little detail, the person depicted is instantly recognizable. They were widely used in the late 18th and early 19th century as an inexpensive way to create portraits in the days before photography. However, silhouettes aren't necessarily portraits as some show other scenes. “Paper cuts” doesn't refer to the unkindest cuts of all, those miserable slices you get on your fingers when handling the edge of a piece of paper. They are paper cut-outs, which can also show portraits or other scenes. Sometimes the two are combined – a paper silhouette is cut out and mounted on sturdier stock. These are a few of silhouettes and cuts to be found in this catalogue.


We begin with the origin of silhouettes, yet this item has no silhouettes in it at all. Item 1 is a Sammelband of five French Enlightenment publications. One of them is Idée Générale du Gouvernement et de la Morale des Chinois: et Réponse a Trois Critiques, published in 1731. That translates to “General Idea of Chinese Government and Morals: And Response to Three Criticisms.” The author was a young Jesuit who wrote about the Chinese government, which he felt was exemplary. You must be wondering what any of this has to do with silhouettes. Here is the answer – the author was Étienne de Silhouette, the man whose name, through no wishes of his own, was given to shadow art. In 1759, Silhouette was appointed Controller of Finance by Louis XV. Silhouette was a tight-fisted controller. He cut expenditures and raised taxes on the wealthy. This was the time of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War to Americans) and France was racking up huge deficits. This was similar to America today except that rather than just talking about the deficit, Silhouette was prepared to take drastic action to deal with it. His ideas did not go over well. Silhouette was ridiculed and forced from office within a few weeks, his ideas never implemented. This was a time of increasing popularity of shadow portraits as they were much cheaper to create than paintings. The result was that the stingy Silhouette's name was attached to these cheap portraits. Priced at €1,600 Euros, or approximately $1,752 in U.S. dollars).


This book made use of silhouettes for “science,” or more accurately, pseudoscience. The title is Physiognomisches Cabinet für Freunde und Schüler der Menschenkenntniss: mit eingedruckten Kupfern (Physiognomic cabinet for friends and students of human knowledge: with printed copper plates). The anonymous author of this three-volume work in one, published 1777-1780, was Friedrich Christoph Müller. Physiognomy was a “science” based on the belief that one could tell a person's internal character by examining certain external features of the profile of that person's head. This was a theory propounded by Johann Caspar Lavater, with Müller his advocate. It is similar to phrenology, which came along later, that was more focused on skull measurements to determine character. These were once popular beliefs with many reputable followers, though they mostly faded away by the end of the 19th century. The third volume of this tract on physiognomy deals specifically with silhouettes. Along with his physiognomy, Müller provides tips on positioning and lighting the subject and creating the silhouette. Müller mused whether to reveal his identity, but instead, only provided his own silhouette. Item 2. €1,600 (US $1,752).


The aforementioned Johann Caspar Lavater is credited with greatly enhancing the popularity of silhouettes as a result of his use of their profiles for physiognomy. Therefore, it is quite fitting to have a silhouette of Lavater himself. Here is one. It is a silhouette of Lavater at his desk, leaning over, pen in hand, writing something. Item 19. €400 (US $438).


This is a physionotrace (or physiognotrace) portrait of a young lady with curls. The physionotrace was a device whereby the artist could trace the outline of the sitter from a shadow on a translucent screen. Through an assembly of arms, his tracing tool was connected to another at the other end that transferred the image to a printing plate. Features could be added rather than having nothing but an outline. That is the case here where her eye, mouth, and hair are seen on the profile image. It enabled the artist to quickly produce small portraits much more cheaply than by painting. Additionally, by creating a plate, they could be produced in multiple copies. This one was produced by Gilles-Louis Chrétien, inventor of the process, and his partner, engraver J. Fouquet, circa 1795. While the physionotrace became very popular at the turn of the century, it would disappear a few decades later with the invention of the still cheaper, yet more accurate process of photography. Item 13. €2,400 (US $2,631).


This next item is Ombres Fantastiques (fantastic shadows), by Eugene Poittevin, circa 1830s. Poittevin was a very talented French painter of the 19th century. However, this collection of 12 lithograph plates, each with about 20 silhouette images, is something different. The figures are based on the Ombres Chinois (Chinese shadow plays) popular at the time. The pages are filled with these silhouetted figures, many of which are devils in playful activities. Item 25. €5,500 (US $6,031).


Susanne Schulz-Falster Rare Books may be reached at +44 (0) 1993 811 100 or susanne@schulz-falster.com. Their website is www.schulz-falster.com. Antiquariat Elvira Tasbach may be reached at +49 30 – 8 24 22 89. The website is www.tasbach-rare-books.com.


Rare Book Monthly

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