Historical portraits and contemporary works from National Portrait Gallery at Mississippi Museum of Art

The Mississippi Museum of Art (the Museum) presents Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, an exhibition from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG), April 27 through August 25, 2019. It is the first major museum exhibition to explore the art form of cut-paper profiles in terms of their rich historical roots and powerful contemporary presence. Black Out will be complemented by a Museum-curated exhibition, A Closer Look: Silhouette Artists in Antebellum Mississippi.

Well before the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, silhouettes were a popular way to capture a likeness quickly and in multiples to hang in parlors and paste into scrapbooks. While commissioning painted portraits was available to people of wealth, paper silhouettes were inexpensive and democratized the genre, offering virtually instantaneous depictions of everyone from presidents to citizens and visitors from afar to those who were enslaved. While museums have paid little attention to the art form, Black Out aims to broaden the traditional American art canon by placing silhouettes—and their subjects—at the forefront.

The exhibition, which primarily features works on paper, also brings together a collector’s album, ceramics, sculptures, prints, media art, and mixed-media installations. Comprising art from 1796 to today, the exhibition presents more than 45 objects and is curated by Asma Naeem, NPG’s former curator of prints, drawings, and media arts. The “Then” portion of the exhibition features sitters who have been previously “blacked out” in historical narratives and includes some of the earliest examples of American portraiture. The “Now” section explores how silhouettes today are no less ubiquitous and can be seen on everything from book illustrations and commercial advertising to profiles people create on smartphones. Artwork by leading contemporary women artists in this section take the silhouette form in new, innovative directions.

“With both historical and contemporary explorations into the form of silhouette, Black Out reveals new pathways between past and present, particularly with regard to how we can reassess notions of race, power, individualism, and, even, the digital self,” Naeem said. “Black Out unpacks the art of silhouettes as a potent art form, revealing the paradoxes of a country roiling with ideals of freedom and the trauma of slavery in the 1800s and the messiness of our modern lives.”

The historical section of the exhibition presents works by Auguste Edouart (1789‒1861) and William Bache (1771‒1845), two of the most well-known silhouette artists of their time. In addition to works by these established artists, Black Out features a rare, life-size profile of a 19-year-old enslaved woman named Flora, whose silhouette was discovered with an original bill of sale from 1796, noting she was sold for 25 pounds sterling. This work is one of the few known portraits of an enslaved person from the 18th century in institutional holdings in the U.S. The Portrait Gallery conserved this extraordinary portrait for this presentation. Black Out also showcases the boundary-breaking history of silhouettes, including the earliest-known likeness of a same-sex couple, a double silhouette of Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant from c. 1805–15; a silhouette of Laura Dewey Bridgman, an accomplished teacher who, at a young age, lost her sight and hearing; and an album by Bache from the first decade of the 19th century. Visitors will have the opportunity to scroll through digital pages of the Bache album to see subjects such as George and Martha Washington along with many everyday New Orleans citizens.

“Silhouettes were an inexpensive and popular form of portraiture before photography, and it is fascinating to recognize how many people—from all walks of life—have had their silhouette made. At the same time, to “black out” can be to erase or, in the case of portraiture, to take someone out of the light. By presenting this once-common art form, the exhibition addresses the complicated histories of American race relations, gender politics, and social class,” said Kim Sajet, director, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

“The Mississippi Museum of Art has a long history of hosting exhibitions like Black Out that offer a fresh, content-rich lens through which to examine relevant and often difficult issues that affect our community. We’re also delighted that the exhibition offers us the opportunity to share more captivating work by Kara Walker, an artist Mississippians should recognize from her participation in the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge project that is currently underway here in Jackson,” said Museum Director Betsy Bradley.

Examining the relevance of silhouettes today, the “Now” section of the exhibition includes large installations by contemporary women artists who explore issues of slavery, gender, modern alienation, and people’s relationship with technology. Kara Walker’s (b. 1969) panoramic wall murals of often graphic and nightmarish scenes of plantation life are displayed along with her equally disturbing “play set” in laser-cut steel painted black. MacArthur Fellow and Stanford University professor Camille Utterback (b. 1970) uses coding and computer software to create an interactive digital work that reacts to visitors’ shadows and movements, aiming to reemphasize our physicality in this virtual age. New York-based artist Kumi Yamashita (b. 1968), a finalist of the Portrait Gallery’s 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, “sculpts” light and shadow with objects to create mixed-media profiles of people who are not there. In Origami (2018), Yamashita creases the edges of origami squares so precisely as to create each sitter’s distinct profile in shadow. Each profile square is custom-constructed during installation using people chosen by the artist at each museum location.

Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now is organized by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, and has been made possible through the support of The Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. Additional support comes from the Ford Foundation, Dea Dea and Dolph Baker, Visit Mississippi, and Visit Jackson.

A scholarly catalog produced by the NPG and Princeton University Press accompanies the exhibition tour that debuted at NPG in 2018. Black Out: Then and Now is the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes and gathers leading experts to consider the complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simplistic art form. This richly illustrated volume explores likenesses of everyone from presidents and celebrities to everyday citizens and enslaved people and reveals how silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation addressing tensions over slavery and political independence. The catalog will be available for purchase in The Museum Store and by calling 601-965-9939.

Also on view April 27-August 25, 2019, A Closer Look is a “focus” exhibition created by the Museum’s Chief Curator, Dr. Roger Ward. It highlights works by the most famous “scissor artists” of the early 19th century during their sojourns in New Orleans, Natchez, and Vicksburg—portraits of both eminent Mississippians and of celebrities who had come South for the winter social season of 1843-1844. Some of the sitters’ names will be recognized by present-day visitors such as those of Sarah Pearce Vick, the proprietor of Nitta Yuma Plantation in Sharkey County; of Edward McGehee, a renowned and powerful jurist who presided over the immense assets of Bowling Green

Plantation, near Woodville; and of Dr. Montroville Wilson Dickeson, the Philadelphia scientist who, as one of North America’s first archaeologists, organized and supervised the excavation of the majestic mounds and Grand Village of the Natchez in Adams County.

“The fact that artists such as Edouart and William Henry Brown worked in New Orleans and Natchez is a testament to the social, intellectual, and commercial importance of what was considered ‘the Southwest’ in the first half of the 19th century,” said Dr. Ward.

These exhibitions and their programming are free and open to the public.


Members Opening Reception
Thursday, April 25, 6-8 p.m.

Gallery Talk | Kumi Yamashita and Becky Hendricks
Friday, April 26, 11:30 a.m.

Media Preview Tour
Friday, April 26, 3 p.m.

Spring Family Day: Meet the Artists!
Saturday, April 27, 9 a.m.-noon
Join us for a fun-for-the-whole-family morning of exploration, art demos, art-making, dance, music, and crafts and meet artists on view in Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now and VISUAL VOICES: Contemporary Chickasaw Art. Family Day is generously sponsored by The Henry and Martha Hederman Charitable Foundation and Regions Bank.

Gallery Talk | In Black and White
Friday, May 3, 11:30 a.m.
During this 30-minute gallery talk, the Museum’s Chief Curator, Dr. Roger Ward, will share his personal insights about the organization and significance of the exhibition Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now and the supplemental presentation of A Closer Look: Silhouette Artists in Antebellum Mississippi.

Art Nights | A Closer Look at Black Out
Tuesday, May 14, 11:30 a.m.
Art Nights is a monthly evening series that brings the humanities to life through art, literature, music, and dialog. This month, Isabel Gray, Museum Director of School and Academic Programs, leads participants in taking a closer look at a selection of pieces on display in Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. Participants will learn about the physiognotrace—an instrument used in producing silhouettes—and participate in a hands-on demonstration exploring its functionality and form.

Gallery Talk & Artist Demo | Silhouette Cutting is a Performance Art
Friday, May 17, 11:30 a.m.
The Museum welcomes silhouette artist Sarah Rick to the galleries of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now for a 30-minute gallery talk and demonstration that highlights the importance of the live interaction between artist and subject.

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists, whose lives tell the American story. The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, DC. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Connect with the museum at npg.si.edu, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and the museum’s blog.

The Mississippi Museum of Art, in Jackson, is the largest art museum in the state. The Mississippi Art Association, established in 1911, was the precursor to the current Museum, founded in 1978 as a community-supported institution. The Museum’s permanent collection includes paintings, photography, multimedia works, and sculpture by Mississippi, American, and international artists. The Museum offers year-round educational programs for both children and adults. The Museum has 31 affiliate museums across the state that benefit from the loan of artworks and traveling exhibitions organized by the Museum, ensuring that those who cannot visit Jackson can still enjoy the state’s rich cultural history. The Mississippi Museum of Art and its programs are sponsored in part by the City of Jackson and Visit Jackson. Support is also provided in part by funding from the Mississippi Arts Commission, a state agency, and in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The Museum is located at 380 South Lamar Street in Jackson. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

More information: msmuseumart.org

Auguste Edouart (1789-1861), Titian and Rembrandt Peale, 1842. ink, pencil and cut paper on paper. Gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. S.NPG.91.126.82.B