Postcard Album Update 2: Silhouette profile portraits

Silhouettes: Profile portraits were popular in the States in the 19th century

Taste in art changes just as surely as swings in fashion, so it’s not surprising that the craze for late Victorian postcards had drastically diminished by the end of World War I. Art Deco came onto the scene as a refreshing change from the elaborate, often stylized designs of the early 1900s. In this country, the use of postcards as holiday greeting gradually shrank to practically nothing, replaced by cards mailed in envelopes.

In Europe, an old art form, the silhouette, was revived in the years between the two world wars in the spirit of Art Deco. Creative artists gave it new life with sprightly designs and the addition of colorful details.

Postcards were illustrated with charming silhouettes that seemed delightfully fresh and original at the time.
The name for this art comes from Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), the French finance minister under Louis XV. He amused himself and others with cut-out portraits in black that eventually took his name. He was so famous for his stinginess that “Silhouette” was used to mean “cheap,” and it was a very inexpensive method of creating a likeness.

Silhouettes, or “shades” as the English called them, grew in popularity until they were eventually replaced by photography.

A silhouette can be made by cutting the image from paper, traditionally black, and pasting it on a background sheet, or by drawing an outline and filling it in with India ink or other solid color. The ancestors of silhouette art go back to classical times in the black figures decorating Greek vases.

Profile portraits were very popular in the United States in the 19th century. For a very small fee compared to painting in oils, a silhouette artist could provide a decorative memento of a loved one.

By the early 1900s when postcards were a major fad, it was still possible to find artists who could cut a silhouette portrait. The most desirable American silhouette postcards have small cut-outs of real people pasted on them, most probably made quickly at fairs or other events.

American publishers also put out some humorous silhouettes, but for the most part, they were rather crude and never became big sellers. It does seem that postcard makers missed an opportunity in the 1920s and ’30s because silhouettes found a ready home in the magazines and books of the day. The famous silhouettes of Nancy Drew and her sleuthing friends that appeared on the end papers of the mystery series for girls are so appealing that they’re still being reproduced today. In fact, a friend sent me a note last week on stationery decorated with them.

Silhouette postcards are mostly European. A number of talented artists worked in this medium, either cutting or drawing them and sometimes adding touches of color. Many that are collected today originated as book illustrations and were reproduced on postcards. The artists’ names are gradually becoming familiar to American collectors as they appear on auction lists or in dealers’ stock. Among the noteworthy are Allmayer, Beckmann, Diefenbachs, Grosze, Kaskeline and Plilschke, to name only a few. Many postcards are available for $10 to $15 in excellent condition, a very reasonable range considering the quality and appeal of the art.

Barbara Andrews is a postcard expert and freelance writer from West Virginia. She can be reached at