Continuation of Investigating Silhouettes

by John

Our patron wants to know more, and his inquiry leads to a number of logical questions: How does one dig deeper? What do the silhouettes tell us about the couple and the date of the silhouettes? Might we identify the artist who made them? How should our patron best preserve them?

We know that William and Margaret were married by the Rev. Mr. Spring on 28 December 1814 at the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City (see Shepherd Knapp, ed., Personal Records of the Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, 1809-1908 NY: Brick Presbyterian Church, 1909], p, 135; 974.402 N422n). We also have access to one of the best available guides for identifying silhouettes: Blume J. Rifken’s Silhouettes in America, 1790-1840: A Collectors’ Guide (Burlington, VT: Paradigm Press, 1987). Rifken shows many examples of silhouettes of the period, offers tips on dating clothing and hair styles, and presents photos of many silhouettes of the period by various artists. While we don’t find an exact match to the clothing, we believe the images are of the Regency period and date from 1815 to 1825. Perhaps William and Margaret had the silhouettes made soon after their marriage.

Rifken shows an image in his book with a very similar painting style to the Leggett images and in a nearly identical frame. The silhouette was painted by the renowned silhouettist, William Bache (1771-1845). Might the Leggett portraits have been painted by Bache, who was based in New Orleans and Philadelphia but also worked as an itinerant? They have a similar relief style, but all we can say is, maybe. We recommend that the patron share digital scans of the images with museums such as the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Center in Williamsburg, Virginia, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., for a more extensive identification. The National Portrait Gallery has an album containing more than 1,800 silhouettes by Bache from a slightly earlier period.

How should the patron best preserve the images? We noticed that they are turning brown and that there is obvious damage to the back of one of the two images. The frames are original and part of the artifact of the silhouettes, and so the frame and image should be preserved together. We recommend taking them to a professional framer who can install new backing with archival-quality paper, which will prevent further deterioration. We also recommend affixing some identification of the subjects to the back of the frames. Doing so will insure that when the silhouettes are handed down to future generations, the identities of the subjects will not be lost.

Be sure to join us for Preservation Week, April 24-30, and learn some skills for identifying and preserving your genealogical artifacts and heirlooms.