New-York Historical Society Offers New Perspectives On Commemorative Traditions In Two Winter Exhibitions

In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, Jan. 17 – April 5, 2020

Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry, Dec. 20, 2019 – May 10, 2020

This winter, the New-York Historical Society presents an exhibition and a special installation that take a fresh look at traditions of remembrance. The exhibition In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes (January 17 – April 5, 2020) traces the development of the late 18th- and 19th-century art form and how artists are reinventing the silhouette today. The special installation Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry (December 20, 2019 – May 10, 2020) displays jewelry featuring human hair that was used as tokens of affection or memorials to lost loved ones.

New-York Historical is taking a deep dive into our expansive collection to explore 19th-century traditions of portraiture and remembrance,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “The art of silhouettes has long been popular, and this exhibition traces both its history and how gifted, contemporary artists are currently revitalizing the art form. Mourning jewelry may have fallen out of fashion, but this installation showcases how it was once the height of elegance.

In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes

Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763–1846) and Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852), Unidentified woman, 1795 Black ink, gouache, graphite on paper laid on thin card. New-York Historical Society, Purchase, The Louis Durr Fund, 1945.344
William Bache (1771–1845), Alexander Hamilton (ca. 1755–1804), ca. 1800. Black ink with touches of white gouache on ivory paper. New-York Historical Society, Z.2459

The art of silhouettes—usually black cut-paper or painted profiles—emerged as a popular form of portraiture in 19th-century America when there were few trained portrait painters. Drawn mostly from New-York Historical’s significant collection by Curator of Drawings Dr. Roberta J.M. Olson, In Profile traces the development of this popular art form and explores its contemporary revival through over 150 silhouettes of both famous and everyday people—from a depiction of Alexander Hamilton to full-length silhouettes of the students in a Gramercy Park girls’ school.

Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Édouart (1789–1861), Philip Milledoler Beekman (1845–1846), 1846. Black prepared paper cut-out with graphite, laid on yellow paper with lithographed background and gray and brown wash. New-York Historical Society, Gift of the Beekman Family Association, 1948.515

The exhibition showcases works by professional practitioners, such as master of the genre Augustin Édouart and Charles Willson Peale (who employed, among others, Moses Williams, an enslaved man who earned his freedom and produced silhouettes at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia). Édouart’s 1846 Philip Milledoler Beekman (1845–1846), which captures a domestic scene of a toddler playing with a jack-in-the-box in a grand drawing room, was created in memory of a child who died when he was just 14 months old.

Unidentified artist, Students and teachers, selections from Miss Haines’s School silhouette series, 1859. Black prepared paper cut-outs laid on beige paper. New-York Historical Society, Z.2611, Z.2613a, Z. 2614a, Z.2617a, Z.2628, Z.2622, Z.2616a, Z.2625b, Z.2637a

Also on display is work from self-trained artists like Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, a gifted paper-cutting artist. Famous for his fairy tales, he also created imaginative, whimsical compositions like Acrobats (ca. 1835–60). Martha Anne Honeywell, a woman born without arms and only three toes, cut profiles for 60 years in America and Europe and managed her successful career. On view are two of her intricate cut-outs of the Lord’s Prayer, one featuring delicate needlework (1845).

Kumi Yamashita (b. 1968), Origami, 2020. Paper, cast light, shadow. Courtesy of the artist. Photo credit: Mitch Ranger

Contemporary featured artists—who are expanding the size, subject matter, and media customarily associated with silhouettes—include Béatrice Coron, who captures the dynamic synergy of New York City; and Kara Walker, who harnesses the silhouette tradition to investigate the legacy of slavery. Coron’s Hi Five! Stories from the Five Boroughs (2019) are hand-cut, eight-foot-long panoramas that capture vignettes from the five boroughs. Walker’s maquette for The Katastwóf Karavan (2017), a public art project created in New Orleans, displays a calliope (steam organ) housed in a horse-drawn wagon, with laser-cut sides that recall cut-paper silhouettes and feature provocative imagery. Also on view is a wall piece by light sculptor Kumi Yamashita, who shapes colored origami papers to cast dramatic shadow portraits of specific individuals.

Kara Walker (b. 1969), Maquette for The “Katastwóf Karavan”, 2017. Painted laser-cut stainless steel. Private collection

Visitors also have the opportunity to “silhouette themselves” as 19th-century practice meets 21st-century technology by projecting their profile onto a screen to create a silhouette that can then be captured by a cell phone camera.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), manufacturer; William Hackwood (ca. 1757–1839), designer. Antislavery medallion mounted as a pin: Am I Not a Man and a Brother?, 1787. Jasperware, metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Selma H. Rutenburg, MD, given in memory of Nina & Jack Gray, 2013.21

Life Cut Short: Hamilton’s Hair and the Art of Mourning Jewelry

This special installation looks at the history of hair and other mourning jewelry through a display of approximately 60 bracelets, earrings, brooches, and other accessories drawn from New-York Historical’s collection by Curator of Decorative Arts Dr. Debra Schmidt Bach. Because hair decomposes slowly, miniatures and other jewelry decorated with hair became symbolic of mourning. These personal mementos provided solace while also being fashionable and socially appropriate. The objects on display illustrate the fascinating history of hair jewelry, with a particular focus on its manufacture and use in New York.

Unidentified maker Mourning ring containing lock of Alexander Hamilton’s hair presented to Nathaniel Pendleton by Elizabeth Hamilton, 1805 Gold, hair New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. B. Pendleton Rogers, 1961.5a
Hair from prominent figures was collected and given to friends and close associates. This ring contains the hair of Alexander Hamilton. While on his deathbed, Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth clipped locks of his hair to preserve as mementoes for herself and her husband’s close friends.

Highlights of the installation are a gold mourning ring containing a lock of founding father Alexander Hamilton’s hair, clipped by his wife, Elizabeth, as a keepsake while he was on his deathbed; and a Tiffany & Co. mourning bracelet featuring hair, gold, silver, and diamonds (ca. 1854), one of many mourning items sold by the famed New York City jeweler. Also on display is artist and naturalist John James Audubon’s facial hair, given to New-York Historical by his widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon.

Brooch and earrings, ca. 1820 Gold, other metal, silver, jet, glass, hair New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. J. Harper (Constance Schermerhorn) Skillin, 1956, INV.12673a-c
Proper mourning jewelry expanded beyond hair work to include pins, brooches, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and sleeve buttons made in black enamel, onyx, chalcedony, and jet.

Miniaturist John Ramage’s hair-working tools and ivory sample cards with selections of hair designs point to the rising popularity of mourning jewelry in late 18th-century America. Active in New York from 1777 to 1794, Ramage created many miniatures that incorporated “hair painting” or curled or woven locks of hair secured under glass within elaborate gold cases. Also featured in the display are period advertisements, instruction and etiquette books, and illustrations of hair-braiding patterns.

Tiffany & Co. (1837−present), retailer Mourning bracelet, New York, ca. 1854 Hair, gold, diamonds, silver, textile New-York Historical Society, INV.774
Mourning jewelry was sold by many New York City jewelers. Tiffany & Co. sold a variety of mourning goods, including jewelry and special mourning stationary. This mourning bracelet memorializes Mary Elizabeth Morris, who died in 1851 at the age of 43. The bracelet was probably made with her hair as a keepsake for one of her daughters.
Unidentified maker Brooch, ca. 1860 Gold, enamel, pearls, hair New-York Historical Society, INV.12650
Pearls, which symbolized tears, were often used as borders for brooches and pendants.

Life Cut Short is supported by Larkspur & Hawk.

Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.

New-York Historical Society Museum & Library

The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation—and one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association—which contains more than three million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.

The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, NY 10024. Information: (212) 873-3400. Website: nyhistory.org.