A silhouette is a type of profile portrait. It’s made by cutting the outline of a person’s face or body from paper and gluing it on paper of a different color. The result looks like a shadow cast against a wall. Silhouettes were the most popular kind of portrait in the early United States. They were made from simple materials and could be produced quickly, so all but the very poorest Americans could afford them. Silhouette artists only needed scissors, glue, and paper to make silhouettes, making it very easy for them to travel from town to town seeking clients. Even people who lived far from major cities had the chance to memorialize their loved ones this way. For these reasons, some historians call silhouettes the most democratic art form of the Federal period.
At first glance, this is a typical example of an early American silhouette. But a closer look reveals that the signature says, “cut by Miss Honeywell with her mouth.” It was created by artist Martha Ann Honeywell. Martha was born without fully formed arms and with only three toes on one foot. From an early age, she adapted to her physical limitations and became a highly skilled artist. Martha was savvy enough to know that people were fascinated by how she created her art given her physical limitations, so she charged money to let audiences watch her work. Martha’s shows were so popular that she toured the United States, England, and Ireland, and she worked successfully for many decades.