Girl Scouts Festival of the Arts Features SAR Silhouette Program
SAR Outreach Education was delighted to participate in the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana’s 44th annual Festival of the Arts on Saturday November 12, 2016. Forty-three Girl Scouts and a handful of enthusiastic parents made their own silhouette portraits, the eighteenth century “selfie.” SAR Museum Collections Coordinator, Ms. Amanda Rush, led the program which included learning about the history of silhouette making throughout the centuries, followed by the hands-on activity. In groups of three, the young ladies used flashlights to cast their shadows onto a wall. They then traced their silhouettes onto a piece of paper, and used a pantograph to reduce the life-sized image to a smaller size. The smaller silhouettes were then cut out, and pasted onto a heavy cardstock frame. The participants were all surprised by how well their portraits turned out; a few girls even said that they were going to give it to their parents as a Christmas gift. The program concluded with an invitation to visit the SAR Genealogical Research Library to view the Silhouette portraits of George and Martha Washington.
Shedding Some Light on the History of Silhouette-Making
The Term “silhouette” was derived from the name Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) a penny-wise financial minister under King Louis XV. Silhouette was so frugal that his name became synonymous with the word “cheap.” Since shadow portraits were an inexpensive alternative to the more costly forms of portraiture, such as painting and sculpture, the art form became known as “portrait à la silhouette” or simply put, “cheap portrait.”
Tracing the outline of a person’s shadow produces a life-size image, but miniature silhouettes were extremely popular in the 18th century because they could be used in jewelry such as lockets and cameos. In order to make a miniature silhouette, a scaling pantograph would have been used.
A pantograph consists of four rods arranged in a parallelogram and joined with pivoting hinges, at the points where the rods intersect. Tracing an image with a stylus inserted at one position in the pantograph device, causes a pen at a second position to move in tandem, reproducing the image in perfect proportion. The earliest precursor to a modern copy machine, the pantograph was used to reduce, enlarge, or copy an image in perfect proportion.
The invention of the pantograph is widely attributed to a German mathematician and scientist named Christoph Scheiner, but Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, various ancient Greeks, and many others, used pantographs, or similar devices, long before Scheiner’s time. Over the centuries, the pantograph has been improved, forgotten, and reinvented several times.
Thomas Jefferson, a known pantograph enthusiast, wrote in 1806, “I think [the pantograph] is the finest invention of the present age…as a secretary to copy for us what we write without the power of revealing it; I find it a most precious possession to a man in public business.” Jefferson eventually owned so many pantographs that he is often credited with having invented the device.
For more information about this and other SAR programs, please visit: