Museum, host to portrait sittings

Posted March 30, 2009, at 6:32 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:41 a.m.

The Curran Homestead Living History Farm and Museum in Orrington is taking reservations for appointments for sittings for handmade silhouette portraits snipped by Jean Comerford of Portraits in Silhouette, a Massachusetts company. Sittings are scheduled 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday, April 4, at 372 Fields Pond Road in Orrington.

Dr. Robert Schmick, volunteer director of educational programs at The Curran Homestead, says Jean Comerford and her daughter are among a handful of artists nationwide who continue the folk art tradition popular in the United States and Europe from the late 18th until the mid-19th century.

The cost is $29 per portrait, $10 for copies. For an additional fee, framing is available onsite. A part of the proceeds from the event will benefit The Curran Homestead’s restoration and living history mission. To schedule silhouette sittings or for more information, call Schmick at 843-5550 or e-mail rpschmick1@aol.com.

Schmick provided the following information about the history of cutting portraits from paper: “Silhouette portraits were available mostly by itinerants as late as the 1870s, but they were most popular during the earlier antebellum era before photography became widespread. Framed family silhouettes would have been among the furnishings of rural Mainers throughout the 19th century, and would not have been out of place in the Curran House. The State Museum in Augusta has had a large collection of silhouettes of antebellum Mainers on display.

“Benjamin Franklin referred to the folk art form as ‘shade’ in a letter to his wife, and this, along with ‘profile,’ were common identifications among others in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic. The art form’s current name comes from Etienne de Silhouette, a general controller for the French government, who had the distinction of being both economic to a fault and passing much time snipping out profiles from paper. The popular and inexpensive shadow portraits were known in England by the name ‘silhouette’ by the 1820s as evidenced by the advertisements of Auguste Edouart. Although single portraits with white backgrounds were the norm, the artist was among those who created elaborate backgrounds with ink washes especially for compositions that included multiple familial portraits like one dating from 1842 at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

“Silhouettes were both cut and painted, and there were a number of ingenious methods employed from the start to achieve the desired profile likeness. Some required far less skill than others. ‘Shadowgraph’ was yet another given name for the ‘likeness in bust’ that characterized most examples, and this was derived from a mechanical device that cut out a profile in the middle of a sheet of paper. The hollowed-out sheet was then adhered to a black or colored sheet that accentuated the profile. There were also full-length portraits of individuals available, too, and some of these are almost comical in their exaggeration of individual characteristics. The early American artist Charles Wilson Peale is known to have offered silhouette portraits at his museum in Philadelphia, one of America’s first.

“Portraits in America most often were done by itinerant artists throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, excluding the few who found early patronage and fame. These itinerants were known to practice a variety of skills to make a living from town to town and sometimes farmhouse to farmhouse travels. Broadsides and the local papers would advertise the availability of their skills for hire, and exhibitions of their silhouettes were not uncommon at the local inn. With the ‘sheet method,’ a life-size shadow produced by candlelight, would be traced and then reduced to a preferred size through the use of a contraption called a ‘pantograph.’ Miniature profiles could be produced for lockets or to adorn snuffbox lids. The price of a silhouette, as advertised by William King of Salem, Mass., in 1804, was ‘twenty-five cents for two likenesses of one person.’ King claimed to have traversed New England plying his skills in Boston, New Hampshire, and as far north as Portland. Within a two-year period, he advertised that he had made some ‘twenty thousand profiles,’ and if that wasn’t enough of a boast he further claimed to do a likeness in ‘six minutes.’ Such boasting and showmanship was not uncommon for these ‘hollow cutters,’ as they were often called, incorporating as much flourish and theatrics as they could while doing portraits often before a crowd. This propensity was no better exemplified than by the ‘Master Sanders K.G. Nellis,’ a paraplegic, who with ‘scissors in toes cut valentines … very ingeniously, and will also cut the likeness of persons very correctly.’”

Snippets

• Katie, a By Hand reader who enjoys doing cross-stitch, e-mailed several of her favorite Web sites: www.crosstitch.com, www.AllStitches4you.com, and www.createforless.com, an online store where one may purchase cross-stitch supplies such as perforated paper.

• Classes in knitting with beads, entrelac, socks and lace are scheduled at Fiberphilia in Orono. Call 866-3423 for more information.

• Old denim jeans are being collected to serve as material for quilts that will be made for Penquis Journey House, a temporary housing facility for women age 16 to 21 who have children or are pregnant. Rape Response Services of Bangor have placed collection boxes at Merrill Bank branch offices in Bangor at 992 Union St., 201 Main St. and 920 Stillwater Ave.

ahamlin@bangordailynews.net

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