Silhouette – A Poor Man’s Portrait

Silhouette – A Poor Man’s Portrait

I’ve been fascinated by silhouettes since I had one done when I was a teenager by an artist at one of the tourist attractions in Tennessee. I was going down a row of souvenir shops and right in the middle of the sidewalk was a booth. As I passed, I saw that the man in the booth was using scissors to do a portrait of a woman who had stopped in front of him. I was amazed at how much it favoured her and, having a little money to spend, I had to have one. That silhouette was left in a drawer somewhere, and I thought little of it over the years, until I began reading everything I could about Jane Austen and saw some of the silhouettes of her and her family.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the silhouette was popular with families and individuals who couldn’t afford a more formal and expensive mode of having their likenesses made. Oil paintings required several sittings, and even pastels or watercolor portraits took time. A silhouette was created in one quick sitting which made them affordable. A popular method used to create it was to have a person sit sideways before a screen with a light on a table on the other side of him. In this manner, a clear shadow was projected on the screen, which gave a perfect image if the light and sitter were arranged properly. The shadow was then replicated by hand. Among the upper class and commoners, shade parties became de rigueur, and soon almost everyone had a copy of their unique likeness. Later machines were invented for the same purpose.


Most silhouette artists were itinerants who worked their magic in popular tourist spots, such as Brighton or Bath, or at public fairs where people were apt to buy souvenirs. They either traced profiles by hand and painted them, or skillfully snipped away at paper with sharp scissors. With an experienced artist, this second method would have been fast and accurate.

The eighteenth century is widely regarded as the revival of silhouettes, though English silhouettes in those days were generally painted, not cut-out. A life-size cut-out was usually taken from the subject’s shadow, and from this, the finished silhouette was made, using a reducing instrument known as a pantograph.

The skill of the best artists lay in the painting. After painting the face solid black with soot or lamp black on plaster or glass, the hair, hats, ribbons, frills, and other essential accessories of the day would have been dragged out, using a fine brush with progressively more and more diluted pigment. Most of us are familiar with images of Jane’s distinctive profile and that of her sister Cassandra.



A complicated silhouette with painted touches, such as Cassandra’s, would take a skilled artist like John Miers a reputed three minutes to produce. With such speed, an artist working in a busy area could create enough portraits to make a decent living at a penny a likeness. Below is a likeness of Jane’s father and mother.


A few years ago, I read an article about a book, Shades from Jane Austen by Honoria Marsh, which was published in 1975-1976 in a series of limited editions. It contains colored illustrations, mostly silhouettes, and a few reproductions of Jane Austen’s writings. Though out of print, I managed to acquire a copy for my editor for Christmas. The pictures below are from the initial article. The silhouettes pictured in that article, unfortunately, did not contain one of Elizabeth Bennet, which I found very disappointing. However, upon receipt of the book, I was not disappointed in the least. It was lovely and my editor loved it!


Part one of the book includes ‘Jane Austen’s Family in Silhouette’, a table showing Jane Austen’s family and chronology of events during her lifetime (written by Peggy Hickman), and Jane Austen’s family tree. Part two includes an introduction and a discussion of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.


I hope this has wetted your appetite to know more about silhouettes, for there is so much more information available than I could put in one post.  What do you think? Are you a fan of silhouettes? Do you think the illustrations do the characters justice? I thought Mr. Darcy (above) should have looked a little heavier—more like Bingley—while Caroline’s silhouette is far too flattering. wink But that’s just my opinion. What’s yours?

Most of the information for this post came from Jane Austen’s World, and the Jane Austen Centre.

25 Responses to Silhouette – A Poor Man’s Portrait

  1. This was interesting to read. I never had one done and can’t say that I ever came cross any booth or artist doing such. Doesn’t sound too difficult if you can get the subject to sit still. Thanks for the information. I agree with the Darcy/Bingley switch…but I think I am influenced by the characters in the 1995 movie.

    • Look up that silhouette Stephanie and frame it! That’s what I am going to do when I find mine. 🙂 I think you would love the book for it was very interesting. 🙂

  2. Thanks for a look at the traditional way of doing silhouettes, Brenda. Being a PhotoShop user, I tend to fall on computer age solutions. Take a profile picture of a person against a solid color background with your digital camera, import into PhotoShop, then Magic Wand the background, fill the selection with white, inverse the marching ants and fill with black. Either print as is or output to a stencil cutter.

    OK, it doesn’t quite have the charm of the old way, but back at the 2011 AGM, that’s precisely what they were doing in one of the workshop.

    • I have no idea what you said Jennifer! Can you tell I know nothing about Photoshop??? I am glad that there are so many more ways of capturing the image of someone you love today. 🙂

  3. Hi Brenda! This was fun. I had forgotten about the Shades book which I bought used on Amazon then later gave away. I agree, the Bingley pic would make a better Darcy. That guy on the left has no muscle and a man who rides all over Pemberley would surely be fit! Ah! Ha! Ha! I had forgotten that the Silhouette was so popular in JA’s time until you reminded us. Great post! Thanks, Jen

    • I’m glad you had fun Jen! I totally agree on Bingley’s pic being a better Darcy. I can see why so many people had silhouettes in that time and am thankful that Jane and her family did. Hugs,

  4. I had a silhouette done in Tennessee too back in the 80s. It was at a place called Rock City. We stopped on the way to the world’s fair in Knoxville. The ones in your article are so detailed. They’re beautiufl.

    • I saw a silhouette man at Rock City too Rebecca! There uses to be a lot of them at tourist sites in Tennessee (for some reason). 🙂 I love the detailed ones and wish Jane’s was detailed as well.

    • I hate that you lost it Wendy! I loved mine and I have it, just don’t know where at present. 🙂 Thanks for taking time to comment.

  5. When I first looked at the pictures, I assumed the middle one would be Darcy. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing.

    • Exactly Becky! The middle one (I guess because he is heavier) strikes me as the oldest, thus Darcy. 🙂

  6. I enjoyed this article on silhouettes. I never though they could take so little time at the hands of an accomplished artist. As to your question….I think Darcy is fine after all he was athletic…fencing and horseback riding, among other pursuits, would’ve kept him lean.

    • I was amazed at how fast the man did my silhouette, too. Just snip, snip, snip and done! 🙂 As for Darcy, I think the one of Bingley looks older because he is heavier, which I guess makes me think he should be Darcy. But, both are fine specimens!

  7. That was very interesting.. when you first mentioned silhouettes I immediately thought of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and then our dear Jane. thanks so much for sharing this with us.

    • It is interesting, when you think about it, how many people we read of in history have silhouettes and nothing more (like Jane’s parents). Thank you for commenting Carmalee.

  8. It’s an enlightening article, Brenda. I have not heard of Shades from Jane Austen and I would like to get a copy too. I’m hoping with the current interest in Jane Austen industry, the publisher can print it again.

    • You can find copies of it at old book stores, like ABE Books (Amazon owns them now). Or just go to google and type in the book name. I am certain you may find them occasionally on ebay or other such sites. They are not inexpensive, but they are available. 🙂

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