A surprising show of silhouettes at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. sheds light on obscure chapters of US history
At the entrance to ‘Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now’ at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. hangs a haunting spirit. Cut paper, yellowed with age, traces a woman’s profile on mottled brown board; below her full lips and rounded chin, an inscription identifies her as ‘Flora’. Beside the silhouette hangs a bill of sale for a ‘certain negro wench named Flora’ to a certain Asa Benjamin of Stratford, Connecticut, dated 13 December, 1796. One of the earliest known images of an enslaved American, Flora’s silhouette was done by candlelight, and the board’s grainy texture gives it an unsettling presence, like a scar that refuses to fully fade. The portrait lends fleshy realism to the short and tragic life of a woman reduced to chattel in her master’s ledger. The bill, meanwhile, is a painful reminder that the myth of Yankee liberalism – enshrined by the victors of the Civil War – obscures the region’s own violent history of slavery.
The exhibition’s many didactic labels, along with several catalogue essays, celebrate the silhouette as the first ‘democratic’ form of portraiture – cheap, quick to produce, and easy to disseminate – before the invention of photography. So democratic, it seems, that it was mastered by those shut out from the democratic process. Two striking silhouettes were cut by Moses Williams, born to mixed-race parents in Philadelphia in 1777. Although he was manumitted by the naturalist Charles Wilson Peale at the age of nine, Williams was forced to serve another family until the age of 28, then the legal age for emancipation. Both works on view were completed around that time, and both are of persons of colour: the eponymous inscription above Mr. Shaw’s Blackman(1802) – pasted on striking cerulean paper – identifies its subject as a servant, while Williams’ own self-portrait from 1803 possesses incredibly refined detail, down to his long eyelashes and jaunty necktie. Such portraits were not limited to paper, either: a beautiful creamware pitcher from 1808, emblazoned with Masonic symbols, bears a finely etched silhouette of the Reverend Absalom Jones, the founder of the first African American Masonic Order and the first African American to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. The grain in Jones’s powdered wig and ruffles in his coat suggest the silhouette form was a stylistic choice, attractive for its wide popular appeal.
Unlike grand manner portraits in oil, silhouettes were an intimate, private form, crafted for the inside of a locket or the hearth within a home. For that reason, they were often associated with domesticity, and by proxy, women’s craft – one reason why the National Portrait Gallery’s staging of this exhibition helps rescue a pivotal art form from the academic dustbin. One fine silhouette on view was made by a disabled woman, Martha Ann Honeywell; born without hands and forearms, and just two stump legs – only one of which had a foot, with three toes – Honeywell began performing sewing tricks in New York City taverns at age 11 in order to earn a living for her family. In 1806, she added silhouettes to her repertoire, using the joints in her arms and toes to guide the scissors; she was often joined by Sally Rogers, another disabled portraitist. Although she was billed as a sideshow attraction, Honeywell’s expert silhouettes gained acclaim in Europe – which she toured for 16 years – and earned her retrospectives at museums in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia before her death in 1856.
Not short on surprises, ‘Black Out’ also includes the oldest known portrait of a same-sex couple in North America: the paired silhouettes of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant (c.1805), on cream-coloured paper and silk, rimmed with braided locks of golden hair. With their slender necks and simple coiffures, the two could be sisters; they met in Weybridge, Vermont, in 1807, where they co-founded a successful tailoring business and kept a home together. As nephew (and famed author) William Cullen Bryant wrote, not long before their deaths, ‘this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in harmony, for more than forty years.’
Living up to its subtitle, the exhibition also includes contemporary silhouettes: a requisite room of beautiful, and characteristically unsettling work by Kara Walker makes searing company for the show’s historical portraits. Her grotesque caricatures in cut black paper and maquettes of coated steel lambast the black-and-white disparities between race and class in the antebellum United States. Kumi Yamashita’s Origami (2017), meanwhile, strikes a less political note with an astounding apparition: squares of coloured paper, affixed to the wall, have been carefully dimpled so that, when lit at an oblique angle, they project shadows in the shapes of real human profiles.
The most contemporary work in ‘Black Out’, though, might just be one of its oldest: the ledger book (1803–09) of William Bache, a celebrated silhouettist who traipsed from Maine to Louisiana peddling his wares. For each portrait that he sold – several of which are on display – Bache saved a black facsimile for his records, and assigned it an index number. The gridded book of profiles, like an alphabet of noses, hats and hairdos, contains the likes of George and Martha Washington, as well as West Indian slaves from the streets of New Orleans. Here, long before Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project (2006), lies a cross-section of early American life flattened and compiled for easy browsing, yet nonetheless fully real – some differences between its anonymous figures cast in shadow, others thrown into sharpest contrast.
‘Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now’ runs at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C., until 10 March 2019.
Main image: Kristi Malakoff, Maibaum, 2009, 20 black paper figures, black foam core, hardware. Courtesy: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; photograph: Kristi Malakoff