04 SILHOUETTES

Between 1760 and 1830, the silhouette, fashioned as a paper cut-out or a drawing, was extremely popular among both men and women of the middle class as well as the aristocracy. In parlours and private gatherings of friends, silhouettes were easy and inexpensive to produce and therefore popular collectibles and barter objects. Mechanical tools such as special silhouette chairs or other instruments designed to replicate profiles accurately were widespread.

RECEPTION OF ANTIQUITY AND SILHOUETTE In accordance with the classical concept of art, the silhouette merged with the ancient mythos of the creation of portrait painting. An apparently archaic practice was used to create pictures, which were similar to the Greek vase paintings. This practise had been rediscovered and updated in the 18th Century. Thus, the palm-sized portraits enjoyed a good reputation, even among the scholars. By collecting the silhouettes, one could appear to be a connoisseur of antique art.

FROM THE SILHOUETTE CHAIR TO THE CONFESSIONAL The practice of creating silhouettes received a further boost by the pastor and philosopher Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801), who viewed it as an expression of human character. He reduced faces to mechanically produced profile lines and extrapolated the innermost virtues out of their external appearances. With this controversial theory, the study of the silhouette was seen as an objective portrayal of the soul.

IMAGE PANEL OF A TRUE-TO-SCALE RESTORATION OF A SILHOUETTE USING A PANTOGRAPH
Friedrich Christoph Müller: Description of a simplified pantograph used for restoration of silhouettes […],
Münster / Hamm 1780, Tab. I
State and University Library of Göttingen

The twelve silhouettes displayed here are from the friendship album owned by the Hungarian student Gregorius von Berzeviczy (1763 -1822). During his studies at Göttingen, he collected 41 silhouettes of the then-active professors in Göttingen, some of their wives, as well as those of some renowned fellow students.

IMAGE PANEL OF TRUE-TO-SCALE RESTORATION OF A SILHOUETTE
Friedrich Christoph Müller:  Detailed paper about silhouettes, restoration, decoration and reproduction.
Frankfurt / Leipzig 1780, panel x
State and University Library of Göttingen

SILHOUETTES

The silhouettes also owed their popularity to their relatively simple production. Instruction books also made it possible for laypersons to engage in silhouetting. In addition, technical aids made manufacturing an almost mechanical process: a special silhouette chair helped to fix the head of the person portrayed so that the shadow was cast onto transparent paper by means of a candle.

PHYSIOGNOMIC FRAGMENTS FOR THE PROMOTON OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE AND LOVE
Johann Caspar Lavater
Volume 1, Leipzig / Winterthur 1775
State and University Library of Göttingen

LAVATER AND HALLER: THE ARCHETYPE OF THE SCHOLAR

In his four-volume main work “Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe” (“Physiognomic Fragments for the Promotion of Knowledge of Human Nature and Love of Humans”) (1775-1778) Johann Caspar Lavater was interested in the relationship between appearances and the inner being of humans, and further, he also tried to abstract from the individual case and construct human types. Thus, the silhouette of the Göttingen scholar Albrech von Haller (1708-1777) was regarded by him as an archetype of scholarship. His description of von Haller’s silhouette in the first volume of “Physiognomischen Fragmente” makes this clear.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE SILHOUETTE?

Albrecht von Haller expressed himself in a rather restrained fashion when confronted with the exuberant description of his profile made by Lavater. In the “Göttingischen Anzeigen” from 1776 he noted: “…I don’t quite know how Mr. L is in a position to extract a multitude of characteristics which he has, by his own conviction, identified through engaging in my writing. However one considers said characteristics, they are too complex to be able to distinguish them in a silhouette. For example, the constant calculated decisions made by a generally jolly and poetic genius.”

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