Kara Walker’s Antebellum cutout installation at the Art Institute pushes the boundaries of what black and white silhouettes can do to combat stereotypes. Here’s a look at some of the more curious nineteenth century silhouettes in the Art Institute’s permanent collection that came before Walker’s bold racial re-envisioning of the medium.
Silhouettes based on shadows have been called the origin of the art of painting since antiquity. By the modern era, the most popular function for the silhouette was for single or family portraits in profile, possibly due to theories that the profile and the soul were visibly connected. Valentines with silhouetted imagery and memorial cards were similarly popular. These were made from black paper cut out and adhered to a white background, or white paper laced with holes on a black background. The unknown maker of a nineteenth-century scene from an album in Prints and Drawings narrowly avoided turning their work into a full-fledged doily. Thankfully, instead, they provided the contrast of a bright blue backing to its floral image of a woman tending a funerary urn.
The overhanging tree suggests the cutter might have been German, or familiar with the German Romantic tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. A prominent theme was the melancholy over premature death (as in the suicide of the lovelorn protagonist in Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther), which became a craze.
Another album in Prints and Drawings was compiled around 1837 by the German-born Queen Adelaide of England (1792-1849), who enlisted her female friends at court to provide drawings of children, landscapes and costume balls. One of them, Elizabeth, Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg (1770-1840), was apparently English by birth, but traveled with her German husband through the Vogelsberg part of his territories. Her contribution was two black cutouts of peasants she saw working in those fields. The figures wear traditional peasant garb, but some abstracted details have become ambiguous to the modern eye.
Elizabeth has focused on several family interactions coinciding with the workday tasks. A father may be keeping a toy away from his dancing child, or perhaps shaking a tambourine for her during a rest. The children on the ground may be working the fields, or simply playing dangerously with abandoned scythes. In contrast, the child on a leash significantly predates modern apologetic attempts to tether the young. Age-old feudal attitudes seem to remain in full swing when Elizabeth described the figures below the cart as “Group I saw in the field as I visited the Vogelsberg (and) struck me as lovely.” Was the main purpose of these peasants simply to form a charming tableau vivant for the entertainment of the nobility? Perhaps we should have exhibited these two cutout gems near Walker's, as they so clearly display the assumptions the aristocracy made about the picturesque workers of their farmlands!