The Swiss and Germans call it "Scherenschnitte;" the French call it "Decoupeur;" to the Japanese it is "Mon-kiri;" and in America it is "Papytomania." All these are different names for papercutting. The Polish papercuts are called "Wycinanki."
Papercutting is an art form in India, Persia, Spain, Mexico, Africa, and China, among other places. In fact, refinements of the silhouette as an art form have been known since 399A.D.
Russia's Empress Catherine the Great collected scissored portraits of friends, relatives, and members of royalty. Napoleon's Marie Louise of Austria cut symmetrical flower compositions of white paper mounted on pale blue backgrounds, as did Marie Antoinette, who sometimes used birds and bow knots as well. For many years the affluent classes and people of political importance were the primary artists and collectors in this field.
Etienne de Silhouette, who gave his name to the silhouette, was a miserly French tax collector, too penurious to pay for a painted likeness. For many years the word was used as a derisive term. The famous August Edouart brought elegance to this art and captured many likenesses with his "Shades," as they were called. Some were full length family studies, with children depicted in delightful activities. Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen's papercuts are tangible evidence of this gifted storyteller's nimble fingers. Fortunately many of his cuts have survived.
In the Orient, much papercutting was made to transfer embroidery designs. In Mexico, papercut banners are still used in church processions.
In England, papercutting for home decoration was made famous by Mrs. Delaney and Amelia Blackburn, who made elaborate collages of birds, flowers, and wreathes in realistic designs of minute overlays and slivers of color. These papercuts were greatly prized and some are still on display at the British Museum. More recently, the present Queen of England, then Princess Elizabeth, made papercuts of brown paper of her favorite horses. Later these were accented with white ink for added dimension.
In America, scissor cuts developed in a variety of forms. Some were love tokens, formal proposals of marriage, or items of a commemorative nature. These often used details of embossing or pinpricks, and many were accented with watercolor. An entire class at Yale College had silhouettes cut. These papercuts survive today as class records.
It was some time before paper became more readily available for the average worker, and astoundingly beautiful results came about when paper became a more common medium. Beautiful pastoral scenes, prayer pictures, New Years' presents, and elaborate love tributes were created.
Two American scissors artists are worth mentioning. One was Nelly Honeywell, who went from fair to fair selling papercuts for a living. Born without arms, she held her scissors in her mouth while she cut The second was a railroad engineer named William Henry Brown, who made a six foot long papercut of the first railroad locomotive, the DeWitt Clinton. This creation is housed in a Connecticut museum, and is the longest papercut on record.
Copyright © 1997, 2008 Sheldon Brown and Arlene Eskilson