Paper cut silhouettes have always fascinated me. The idea that an artist can create an image of a person or even an entire scene simply by cutting paper is amazing. Plus, the simple elegance of a black silhouette pasted onto white paper is dramatic and makes for great art.
That must be why antique paper cut silhouettes remain popular with collectors. Even new antiques fans are drawn to these images, first dubbed “shadows.” Paper cutting, now often referred to by the Dutch or German term Scherenschnitte, is an art that requires sharp blades and a keen eye.
Paper cutting has been around for centuries, although there has been a recent resurgence of the technique. Perhaps because of scrapbooking, paper cutting tools and kits have become increasingly popular.
Paper art has been around for a long time. Ancient Chinese and Japanese arts embraced the technique, and in the 18th century many European cultures embraced the craft, including Poland, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and Germany.
The German form consists of folded paper and cut out shapes, but other styles and nationalities use single sheets and a shadowy profile picture. Most are cut and pasted from the silhouette, but there is also a version known as hollow cutting, which means the artist cuts out the image, leaving a negative image of the design, which is then pasted into the background.
Old documents sometimes have paper-cut edges to embellish them, and valentines are often enhanced with this lace detail. Even children learned to cut paper and create some of the treasures found in antique shops and auctions today. Knives, razors and scissors are tools that are welded like a brush by creative paper artists.
Profiles were often the cutwork of itinerant craftsmen who traveled from city to city, cutting likenesses of people, places, and things to earn a living. These simple images were very valuable in the pre-photographic era and were proudly displayed.
During the Federal period, Germans and Swiss who settled in Pennsylvania became, and still are, famous for their paper-cutting folk art. Some cut out profiles, others snip full body pics. Paper color also varied, although black and gray were the usual choices. Sepia and brown were also used.
Many early American silhouettes feature images of statesmen or important figures such as George and Martha Washington.
Another type of silhouette often found in antique stores is the reverse painted style. This is not an image cut out of paper, but a painting, usually painted with black paint on glass. Often the glass is concave and sometimes the matte (background) contains color and a background scene.
Most of these painted silhouettes date from the 1930s, so are not as old or as valuable as real antique silhouettes from the 17th and 18th centuries. These can be sold at fine antique stores or on sale for hundreds of dollars.
Dating silhouettes requires in-depth knowledge of technique, framing and design. Artist names are also important, since many of the very old ones are signed. 17th and 18th century silhouetters are often known and researched, which contributes to the provenance and investment quality of these fine antiques. Some of the biggest names are Doyle, Edouart, Metford and Peale.
A wonderful resource for antique silhouette art is at the website of folk art and Americana lovers Peggy McClard and Randy Segotta (mcclardsegotta.com).