The double portrait looks relatively unremarkable: framed by delicate strands of human hair, the two silhouettes of women facing each other could represent the same individual, with pinned-up tresses and no details that identify either. But as preserved documents and letters suggest, the image is notably one of the earliest known likenesses of a same-sex couple. The sitters were Vermonters Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, who posed for this portrait in the early 19th century; when they passed away, they were buried in the same cemetery beneath a shared gravestone.
How silhouette portraits, although visually simple, have recorded stories that would otherwise likely be forgotten — or never documented — is one key concern of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Curated by Asma Naeem, the Portrait Gallery’s curator of prints, drawings, and media arts, the exhibition features about 50 objects that date from 1796 to today, emphasizing the narrative possibilities of this deceptively elementary medium. It is the first major museum show to examines these delicate, pitch-black pictures as a significant art form.
Like Drake and Bryant’s shared portrait, the vast majority of silhouettes on view are paper cutouts (the show also features relics like a decorated jug and tea set). These were often produced, beginning in the late 18th-century, with a cutting instrument known as a physiognotrace, which traced a person’s profile within minutes. Such speed, coupled with the low-cost of having one’s picture made, meant that this form of portraiture was incredibly accessible to nearly anybody from all walks of life (unlike oil paintings); by the 1780s, silhouettes proved highly popular in America, and, as Naeem argues, democratized portraiture long before the advent of photography.
The diversity of individuals represent on the gallery’s walls speak clearly to this. Many were created by Auguste Edouart (1789–1861), a prolific French artist who made thousands of silhouettes in his lifetime. Edouart fashioned pictures of well-known figures, from John Quincy Adams to the painter Thomas Sully, but he also made portraits of minorities and other marginalized individuals.
Laura Dewey Bridgman, recognized as the first blind and deaf person to be educated in the English language, sat for him in 1843, as did Chin Sung, a Chinese man from Peking (present-day Beijing). Edouart’s work was remarkably detailed: he took care to capture his subjects’ physical characteristics, adding extra details with white chalk. As simple as some of his depictions might have been (the image of Chin Sung, for instance, takes care to portray him as a Chinese foreigner, or outsider), the artist’s portfolio reveals an astonishingly varied cast of characters in mid-19th-century America.