Life Before Photography

By Deanna Schiavone

This week we will be looking at a silhouette of the bust of Mary Clinton in the late 18th century. The silhouette is oval within the original black wooden frame. Clinton’s image was made by cutting light paper to resemble her silhouette and framing it against a black silk. This is known as a hollow-cut silhouette because the light colored positive middle drops away to leave the negative against dark paper or fabric.1 During the late 1700s, Neoclassicism inspired an interest in this simplified form of portraiture from profile images from ancient Egypt and Greece.2


The three basic types of silhouettes are painted, hollow-cut, or cut-out and they can further be divided into busts or full figure.3 Artisans free-cut, traced or used machinery, such as a physiognotrace machines, in order to produce these keepsakes.4 People got these to have as family treasures, to wear, or just to simply use to remember a loved one. Sittings took five minutes or less and by having one copy they could be remade easily.5 These were cheaper forms of portrait miniatures that artisans produced throughout the countryside when they were tight on money. They were popular until the world of photography took its first form as daguerreotypes.

Mary Clinton was born in 1773 to General James and Mary Clinton. Her Father was a Major General in the Continental Army.6 One of her siblings was Governor DeWitt Clinton, the father of the Erie Canal. She was married twice, once to Robert Burrage Norton and then to Ambrose Spencer.7  With Norton she had 2 children until his death in 1803. In 1808, she married Spencer, politician and judge, as his second wife. Within that year, Mary died and Spencer married her sister Katherine.

The silhouette is on display in our new exhibit, Capturing the Likeness: 19th-Century Portrait Miniatures. Every round of curatorial interns at HHS has the opportunity to curate an exhibit to be displayed in the DuBois Fort. This semester, I researched portrait miniatures along with Miriam Ehrlich and we are excited for this exhibit to finally be open! It will be on display in the DuBois Fort until June 21.

1 Knipe, Penley. “Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 41, no. 3. American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works: Washington, DC, 2002. 203-223.

2 Ibid.

3 Welter, Lisa. “Types, Techniques and Analysis of Silhouettes.” Arlington Historical Society: Arlington, MA, 2013. Web. 5 May 2016.

4 Ibid.

5Portrait Miniatures: Other Types of Small Portraiture.”  Victoria and Albert Museum: London, 2016. Web. 5 May 2016.

6Mary Spencer.” MyHeritage Ltd. Web. 5 May 2016.

7Mary Clinton Letter to her father, James Clinton, MS 2958.1984.” The New-York Historical Society: New York. Web. 5 May 2016.

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