The vogue for “shadow portraits” or “silhouettes” emerged around 1750. The name “silhouette” was taken from that of the notoriously thrifty finance minister Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) who had proposed a land tax on the nobility. A protégé of Madame de Pompadour, he owned a château in Bry-sur-Marne (to which he retired in 1760) and decorated its interior with landscapes and shadow portraits. In his Tableau de Paris, published between 1782 and 1788, the journalist Louis Sébastien Mercier wrote, “From that time on, everything took the form of a silhouette […], fashion became imbued with dryness and meanness […], portraits were faces drawn in profile on black paper from the shadow cast by a candle on a sheet of white paper.” It took technique rather than artistry to produce these portraits, which could be made by anyone; silhouette cutting thus became one of the most popular pastimes in Europe due to the appeal of its Rousseauistic simplicity, in harmony with the virtues of family and friendship. Artists began to specialize in this technique, which also interested scholars such as the renowned Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) who developed a “sure and convenient machine for drawing silhouettes”; even Gœthe yielded to the craze, which took its strongest, most enduring hold in Germany where the porcelain factories replaced painted coats of arms and monograms with silhouette portraits of their clients. This type of decoration was particularly suited to tea and coffee services, which had fewer pieces than dinner services, making it possible to limit the number of models to members of the family circle. This individual luncheon case, covered with morocco leather and upholstered in silk satin, contains pieces featuring delightfully neoclassical head-and-shoulder portraits of family members whose first names are borrowed from ancient history but whose wigs are contemporary. The only full-length portrait, on the tray, shows the father seated at his desk. The personality of each figure is expressed through the careful detail of the profiles and the carefully rendered accessories. These silhouettes, like the paper cut-outs, are framed by oval medallions within ribbon-tied festoons of roses in burnished, two-color gold – an indication of the quality of this commission. The new form of these pieces is attributed to the French sculptor Michel-Victor Acier (1736-1799), employed by the Meissen factory in 1764 as a master modeler and appointed a member of the Academy of Dresden in 1780. Coming after the long reign of Johann Joachim Kaendler, he played a key role in the development of the neoclassical style in the factory. The cup is modeled on one from Sèvres, the cylindrical gobelet litron; the other pieces, which still have rounded bellies, feature “Greek-style” handles and festoons of laurel leaves under the spouts.
B. R. Un cabinet de porcelaines, exhibition catalogue, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2001, no. 72, p. 70.