We’re cutting it up this weekend with silhouette artist and Historical Interpreter Lauren Muney. On Saturday, January 25, visit our new exhibition In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, where we trace the compelling history of a singular art form with a diverse array of works from the late 18th century to the modern-day. Afterwards, drop by and meet Muney as she demonstrates the timeless art of silhouettes. Here, she explains why they’re such an enduring way of creating portraits, why they’ve gone in and out of fashion across the generations, and how they connect us to the past. “The silhouette sitter experiences the thoughts and feelings of all the people in the past who’ve had silhouettes made: ‘What will my portrait look like?'” she says.
What can families look forward to this weekend?
I’ll be making silhouettes just as they were made in the early 1800s, when “middling” people of the United States were hanging them on the walls of their homes. I’ll be dressed in period clothing, cutting silhouettes in full view of visitors, and talking about the various cultural elements that created our new country. (Be sure to ask me about a popular celebrity who was like a Kardashian of her era!) Visitors will see me make silhouettes freehand, with only scissors. In a time when everything seems to be made with computers or smartphones, it’s refreshing to know that humans can actually use their just their eyes and hands to make something.
How did you become a silhouette artist?
I saw my first authentic silhouette in an antique store. I was fascinated by facial shapes, and I connected emotionally to the portrait as a real person who live centuries before. I couldn’t afford an antique, but I couldn’t shake the thought of that silhouette.
So I started researching how they are made and how common they were before photography was invented. Silhouettes are hard! We’re not used to doing things freehand: They’re cut with only scissors without drawing in advance or using any shadows or machinery. It took me over a year of practice before I felt that any silhouette I cut was not going to embarrass anyone! Now, almost 14 years later, I travel across the globe cutting silhouettes and helping visitors and guests experience an important element of our past.
How does cutting silhouettes fit into your idea of Living History?
I want to give visitors a tactile sense of life in the past. I try to present silhouettes in the way that was presented in that era, usually sometime between the 1750s and 1917. What were the different reasons people might have a portrait made? I can use them to talk about how money was spent, how traveling was achieved in the eras before cars and highways, and how people presented themselves using clothing.
In many places, visitors can participate by having a silhouette made. For these moments of the silhouette process—say, 90-120 seconds—the visitor is living history too. For these lucky visitors, they are spending 90 whole seconds not doing anything but sitting and thinking. The silhouette sitter experiences the thoughts and feelings of all the people in the past who’ve had silhouettes made: “What will my portrait look like?”
Do you have any tips for young “history detectives” interested in historical trades?
Watch everything! Seek out any opportunity to see Living History presented and to see artisans making things. Most of our modern objects have roots in the past, and we can become inspired by watching, asking questions, and following in the steps of artisans. People can find details of historical trades everywhere—from a chair maker to a blacksmith to a portrait-maker. The real joy might come from looking at objects through time and seeing how these objects were used and even how cultures discarded what they think of as not “fashionable” anymore. Objects come and go in the public interest. But just because something isn’t cool anymore doesn’t mean that it isn’t fascinating and valuable.
Silhouettes, for example, have gone through many periods when they were cool, then uncool, then cool again—over and over for hundreds of years. But they never left, even when photographs came into the culture. Each time the coolness returned for a different reason!
Written by Cheyney McKnight