“We are really trying to express the vibrancy of portraiture, the necessity of it, the relevance of it, and the ways that it can cut across class and different races and genders,” said Asma Naeem, the exhibition’s curator and the National Portrait Gallery’s curator of prints, drawings, and media arts. “We are moving forward to tell a fuller American story.”
The peak popularity of silhouettes coincided, notably, with the beginning of that national story, during the early years of the newly independent American republic in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “We have, I think, with the silhouettes in America, a merging of the right moment and the right art form,” Naeem added.
Mirroring the country’s newly founded democracy and foreshadowing how photography would soon make portraiture accessible to all, silhouettes depicted everyone from presidents and the first Hispanic U.S. congressman to dwarves, the handicapped, enslaved African-Americans, and same-sex couples.