Activity Group 2: Walker and the Story of the Silhouette

Exercise 1: Close read Walker’s “Pastoral”

Ask learners to do some observation work on Walker’s “Pastoral”.

Kara Walker,

1. Take note of what you see and write down at least five observations. No detail is too small.

2. After noting what you observed, take a moment to explore some of your thoughts in writing. Given your observations, what do you think this artwork means? What is happening? Who or what is represented and how do you know? What questions do you have? (Ask at least three.)

3. After doing this observation work, consider the artwork’s title. Where does the title take your thinking? Does the place or time of the figure(s) become more or less clear? What new questions do you have? (Add at least two.)

Exercise 2: The Silhouette

A popular form in the 18th and 19th century, the silhouette actually dates back to antiquity, where we can find them on Greek vases and Egyptian tombs or graves. A silhouette is, very simply, someone’s profile, usually cut out from black paper. Silhouettes were often considered a feminine or women’s art form because they could be made in the home.

Although also called “shadow portraits” and “shades” in the eighteenth century, the name "silhouette" dates back to one Étienne de Silhouette in France. In 1759, he became the controller-general for King Louis XV and was so irresponsible with the royal budget that his name became associated with “cheapness”. Silhouette artists in the period began calling their artworks “silhouettes” in order to sell their work more easily than more expensive painted profiles. As writing paper became more available and affordable, silhouettes became an accessible form that enabled many people to have familial or individual portraits in their homes.

Another influence on the silhouette’s rising popularity in the nineteenth century was the pseudoscience, or fake science, of physiognomy, which was based on the belief that a person’s appearance—especially their face—revealed their true personality. Physiognomy was used as a basis for scientific racism, a belief that argued we could easily see and classify people according to how they looked—the white, Anglo-European face was considered the “normal” one.

As photography became increasingly accessible in 1839, photographs replaced silhouettes as a popular form of portraiture.

After reading the brief summary on the history of the silhouettes above, go back to your work with Walker’s “Pastoral.”

1. Given your observations and close reading notes, where do you see Walker referring to aspects of this history? In other words, what details point you to it?

2. Finally, develop some writing and thinking around why you think Walker is referring to the silhouette in this artwork. What about the silhouette does she ask us to notice or rethink?


Reading Resources: Kara Walker was produced by Wendy Tronrud (A. R. T. Education Consultant) in collaboration with Art Resources Transfer (A.R.T.) in 2019-20.

A.R.T. acknowledges the invaluable generosity, assistance, and enthusiasm of all who contributed to Reading Resources production:

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

We also thank:
National Endowment for the Arts
H.W. Wilson Foundation
Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Mackenzie Salisbury
A.R.T. Board of Directors
A.R.T. Advisory Board
and most specially, Kara Walker.

Web programming by Document Services.
Copyright © Art Resources Transfer, Inc 2020.

All images are protected under copyright by the original rights holders.

A.R.T. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

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