Discover Vintage America - DECEMBER 2017

Silhouettes and on-glass paintings make great gifts

Here we are in the gift-giving season and we all have at least one person who is difficult to buy for. I know of one all-occasion gift that is easy to make and can be adapted to anyone. This particular item, or the technique to create it, has been around since 600 B.C. According to the Roman author Pliny; a romantic Greek woman named Korinthea became the first silhouette artist when she traced the shadow of her lover's profile.

Vintage silhouettes, aka shadow pictures, and reverse paintings on glass are also popular collectibles and relatively easy to find in antique resale venues. I have been collecting both for years. I became fascinated with silhouettes while in elementary school. Every year our teacher would craft silhouettes of all the students. I then went home and made silhouettes of all my dolls and even my little brother, which I gave to my mother on her birthday. I had one made of my youngest daughter years ago as a gift for my mom and the man who cut it did it freehand. He was able to complete it in less than 10 minutes.

A silhouette does not have to be of a person; you can use any item and trace it on paper or if you are skilled with scissors you can cut them freehand.

The term "silhouette" came about as a jab to a French amateur cutter, Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), a minister of finance who was famous for his stinginess. During the height of their popularity several types of machines were made which allowed large quantities of silhouettes to be manu-factured. The subject could be anything: horses, Art Deco designs, women in a parlor, children playing, etc.

The development of the daguerreotype and other photographs reduced the demand for silhouettes with the exception of the Quaker community. Their religious beliefs did not allow photographs but silhouettes were acceptable.

From the 1920s to the 1940s silhouettes were in high demand as a home decoration. They were usually sold as pairs and were created by a number of different companies. Some of these companies combined the art of silhouettes with reverse on-glass painting. This allowed color to be added, which brought depth and dimension to the pieces. It is often difficult to know which company created these gems, as they would use a paper label or stamp on the back of the cardboard backing of the item and they were often lost.

Reverse on-glass is just as it sounds; an image is painted on the glass on what will be the inside of the final product. Another option was placing a tinted foil background behind the graphics, which added a shimmery effect to the overall design.
You can find these beautiful works of art in a variety of sizes and the decoration can run from a simple silhouette or reverse on glass image to multi-layered, colorful designs. The use of butterfly wings and flowers were also popular additions. Silhouettes with a calendar beneath or thermometer were popular giveaways from the 1930s-1960s.

Convex glass silhouettes or reverse on-glass pieces are very popular and these are also priced higher than a plain flat glass piece. Small, round convex glass works are relatively easy to find so if you come across a larger one at a reasonable price be sure to snag it.
These are all easily damaged especially the reverse on-glass items. A little damage is nothing to worry about, yet I have seen works where the image and detail are almost invisible and greatly over-priced.

Also worthy of mention are reverse on-glass indoor signs. These are generally rectangular on very thick glass and come in a variety of lengths. I have seen them for "Doctor's Office," "Pharmacy," "Open," "Closed" or other one-lined or two-lined words. They have a black background with silver or gold text. Once again, these are easily damaged due to the back not being covered so expect some color chipping but grab any you see with good paint.

Prices vary depending upon the detail on the piece and run from $10 for a plain image up to $75 for a very detailed image using a silhouette and reverse on-glass. Glass signage can cost up to $200 depending upon condition and how elaborate the text is.

If you want to try your hand at creating something special for someone, grab your scissors and paint, then go to one of the below links and let the beauty begin. If you do give it a go please share your creation by sending it to my email, which is listed below.
Happy Holidays to all!

If you would like to learn how to make a silhouette: go to:

For a how to on reverse-on- glass painting, see:

Note: All prices given are for sale in a private sale, antique shop or other resale outlet. Price is also dependent upon the geographic area in which you are selling. Auction value, selling to a dealer or pawnshop prices are about half or less of resale value.

Michelle Staley is a Lenexa, KS-based dealer and researcher with 35 years of experience in the antique trade. Send questions with photos to Michelle to Please keep queries to one question; questions without photos of the item may not be answered. Michelle is also available for consulting and extensive research work beyond this column. If you would like an appraisal on an antique or collectible please go to for a one-on-one appraisal.