Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now

Before the selfie, before the Polaroid, and even before the photograph, there was the silhouette, a profile portrait made from cut paper. Silhouettes were a hugely popular and accessible form of portraiture in the nineteenth century, offering almost instant images of everyday Americans—women, men, black, white, presidents, and laborers. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now explores this relatively unstudied art form by investigating its deep historical roots and considering its forceful presence today.

Black Out presents historic silhouettes from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and other institutions alongside works by contemporary artists who are reimagining silhouettes in bold and unforgettable ways. Auguste Edouart’s images capture notable figures including John Quincy Adams (sixth president of the United States) and Lydia Maria Child, an anti-slavery and women’s rights activist. Other rarely-seen highlights are a double-silhouette portrait of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, a same-sex couple from the early 1800s, and a life-size silhouette of Flora, a nineteen-year-old enslaved woman. These powerful images offer us glimpses into their lives.

Contemporary artists Kara Walker, Camille Utterback, and Kumi Yamashita use silhouettes to create provocative works of art today. Kara Walker engages the silhouette’s associations with elegance and refinement to imagine violent episodes throughout history, Camille Utterback presents an interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements, and Kumi Yamashita sculpts light and shadow with objects to create mixed-media profiles of people.

With both historical and contemporary explorations of the silhouette, Black Out reveals new pathways between our past and present, particularly with regard to how we can reassess notions of race, power, individualism, and our digital selves.

This exhibition has been organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., and generously sponsored by the Thoma Foundation.

The local presentation of the exhibition is made possible with support from the City of Birmingham.

Featured Image: Double Silhouette: Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, Unidentified Artist, c. 1805-1815, Cut paper on black fabric, cream colored laid paper, framed in silk and braids of human hair, Sheet: 14.6 × 14.6 cm (5 3/4 × 5 3/4″) Collection of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History X1979.325