Monday, February 6, 2012

Cameos, Silhouettes and Cartes de Visite

by Debra Brown

Once upon a time there were no cameras. Really! Not even cell phone cameras. People wanted images of their loved ones, or of themselves to share. No doubt sketches and carvings were made from earliest times on whatever materials could be obtained. The likeness of the person would depend upon the skills of the artist and other factors, such as materials.

This is a sketch of Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. It is based on a drawing done by her sister Cassandra, which contemporaries did not consider to be a successful likeness.

Perhaps Cassandra's watercolor is more accurate.

Skilled artists were sought by those who could afford their services. One early form of likeness is the cameo. Ancient cameos were often made from semiprecious gemstone, usually onyx or agate, where two contrasting colors meet. Less expensive cameos are made from shell or glass. Artistic cameos were made in Greece as far back as the 3rd Century BC. They were very popular amongst the Augustus family of ancient Rome.

Shown here is a cameo portrait of Augustus. Sardonyx cameo; gilt silver mount with pearls, sapphires and red glass beads, 16-17th centuries. Photography: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Revivals in popularity of the cameo have occurred periodically. The first such revival in Britain was during the reigns of George III and later his granddaughter, Queen Victoria, to the extent that they were being mass produced during the latter half of the 19th Century.

French Finance Minister Etienne de Silhouette cut black profiles as a hobby. The cuttings were originally called profile miniatures or shades. The name silhouette was in use by the early 19th Century. These provided family members with a likeness that was much less expensive than a painted miniature, and it is thought that Silhouette's name became associated with them because of his severe economic policies. The likeness could be cut by a skilled artist in minutes using paper and scissors. At times, gold accents and colored paint were used to add interest. The cost of a silhouette could run from a shilling to more than a guinea.

Resort and spa towns came to have at least one silhouettist. The daughter of King George III, Princess Elizabeth, was an amateur in the field. Materials used included paper, wax, glass or plaster. More costly silhouettes were framed. A famous English artist was John Miers (1756-1821), who began his career in Liverpool and then moved to a London studio at No. 111 Strand in 1788. He charged a guinea per silhouette. Some that he did on ivory came to be used in rings, lockets and bracelets.

Silhouette presumed to be Jane Austen. 4 in. x 3 1/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, London, 1810.

Scherenschnitt (Silhouette) von Ferdinand Ernst von Waldstein in Ludwig van Beethovens Stammbuch

A silhouette might be done, along with a poem, to remember a departed loved one.

A proliferation of unskilled artists took up the lucrative trade, decreasing its popularity. Then another advent threatened the silhouette medium: commercial photography. In 1854, a Parisian photographer named Andre Disderi patented a multilensed camera which produced eight small likenesses on one large glass negative. The resulting print was cut, the portraits were trimmed, and they were then mounted on cards measuring two and a half by four inches. This was the usual size of a visiting card, and so these photos were dubbed cartes de visite. In 1859, Napoleon III had his photograph made up in this manner, initiating a craze throughout Europe, and then in America, called cardomania. The craze reached England in 1861 when J.E. Mayall took carte de visite portraits of the royal family. Soon, studios opened in every town. A photographer in Bath reportedly sold between sixty and seventy thousand cards in a single year.

By the third quarter of the 19th Century, hardback, leather-covered photograph albums with stiff cardboard pages, often decorated with drawings, were to be found in most Victorian parlors. Cartes de visite featuring famous personalities were added to these family albums, with crowds gathering whenever shop windows displayed the latest. Actors and society, political, clerical and military figures, and especially the royal family, were in great demand. When the prince consort died, not less than seventy thousand of his cartes were ordered from Marion and Company of Regent Street. Cartes de visite were eventually made in larger, cabinet print size.

Thomas Stevens introduced something new in 1879- the silk-woven picture or Stevengraph. Two scenes of local interest were woven on a loom. These sold for a shilling, with new pictures being issued once a month. Portraits were later done in this manner, featuring members of the royal family, sportsmen of the day and so on. By the early twentieth century, even silk-woven postcards portraying famous passenger liners were sold as souvenirs to passengers aboard the ships.


Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an early Victorian mystery with sweet romance. Watch for her second novel, For the Skylark, in 2012.


1. The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes.

2. Wikipedia

3. Pictures from Wikipedia and Wikimedia.


  1. I still have the silhouettes my mother had done of my sister and I when we were young. And I treasure the cameo my husband gave me years ago. Little likenesses and momentoes reminiscent of another age. I have always liked old post cards but I didn't know about the silk woven Stevengraphs! Thanks for the post.

  2. What an interesting post, Debbie! Thank you. I LOVE silhouettes. They were all the rage at fairs and when the circus came to town in the 1950s to 1970s - particularly for courting couples. As a small child I was more interested in watching the silhouette artist work his magic with scissors and paper than going on the fair rides.
    There is the other theory that the term "silhouette" came from the brevity of M'sieur Silhouette's time in office as Finance Minister - he came and went - much like a shadow does. : - )
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank yew Debbie. Oi ain't got no camera neither. Didn't never 'ave one, so Oi really 'preciate yer post.
    Luv from Jenno

  4. There's a fab collection of silhouettes in the Holbourne Museum in Bath--it's well worth a visit. As you say, silhouettes were the cheaper version of the miniature, though both, in a sea-faring nation such as ours were popular so that husbands and wives had a likeness to remember the other by during those long years of separation. Often too, a lock of the loved one's hair would be woven into the back of the frame...

  5. A really interesting post, Debra. Delightful. I suppose one day, in 3012 maybe, someone will produce a similar post about the mobile phone craze!

  6. Thank you all for the additional information! Tim- it is hard to imagine what things will be like even ten years from now with technology. Perhaps the smart phone in my purse will be looked on as old fashioned. It cracks me up to watch an "old" movie and see them with the super-sized cordless phones we once had in our homes. That makes me feel old. And how terrible that they didn't take pictures! :)

  7. Fantastic post, Debra!! I really like silhouettes and cameos. I have seen the presumed Jane Auten silhouette at the National Portrait Gallery lots of times while living in London :D And I will definitely visit the Holbourne Museum in Bath when I visit that town next summer :D Thanks for an interesting post.

  8. Very enjoyable! I didn't know the term 'silhouette' was a man's name. Love learning new things. And that second Jane Austen looks familiar. (-;

    Thanks Debbie!

  9. Thanks Cinta and Sophia Rose! Yes, I've seen that before... ;)


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