By Olive Crittenden Robinson; originally published in August 1942.
Among records of the many profile cutters of silhouettists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries flourishing in Massachusetts, no mention appears of Ezra Wood who plied his art along with his trade in Buckland, Franklin County, Massachusetts. Indeed while eastern Massachusetts seems well represented in ‘black portraiture,” my search reveals no record of workers in the craft who were resident in the western part of the state, though there were endless itinerant silhouette cutters who probably traveled across the state.
The skill and distinction of the work of Ezra Wood, humble though his art may be, deserve recognition. It is believed that he cut profiles direct from the subject without mechanical aid, a method which requires special dexterity. Apparently his work was held in high esteem locally, as examples are mounted in the best type of frame in vogue for silhouettes in his day.
Records of the town of Buckland reveal that Ezra Wood, twin of Joel, was born December 2, 1798, son of John and Suzanna Temple Wood. His grandfather, James Wood, had settled in Buckland about 1750, coming from Uxbridge, Massachusetts. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century Ezra was established in the wood-turning business at Buckland Four corners, where he lived with his wife, Hannah, and where three sons died in infancy. Ezra himself died June 12, 1841.
Silhouettists had many trades. As the usual charge for cutting a profile was about fifty cents (sometimes half that) they had to supplement their incomes. Or perhaps we should put it the other way round: doubtless in many cases silhouette cutting was an avocation by which the “artist” supplemented the income derived from his trade. Among the items known to have been turned out by Wood in his shop are shaving boxes, combs, and “crimpers.” A grand-nephew of Ezra Wood still residing in the vicinity recollects finding, as a boy, several dozen of the ancient wooden crimpers (hair curlers) fashioned by his great-uncle years before. With a companion the youngster peddled these from house to house and exhibited such amazing salesmanship that not only was the supply soon exhausted but repeat orders were received.
The shop of Ezra Wood was located on the Post Road which ran from Greenfield through Shelburne Falls, Buckland, Hawley, Ashfield, and Conway. Near-by was the Post Road Tavern and opposite the Wood homestead was another tavern kept by Captain William Hook, whose daughter, Almira, married Lyman Wood, a brother of Ezra. Travelers spending the night at the taverns were probably ready subjects for the local silhouettist. He himself held a license to dispense liquor in the years 1820 to 1823—possibly a bit of Yankee strategy to bring customers to his door. In any event, he has the distinction of being one of the few profile cutters who remained in one place to conduct business. An address made in 1879 and quoted in a history of Buckland referred thus to Wood: “As for famly likenesses in which we so delight at the present time, their photographs were little black profiles cut by Ezra Wood, to hang around the chimney place. This man had developed a good degree of skill in cutting silhouettes and made many for people hereabouts.”
Of the various type of silhouettes, which enjoyed a tremendous vogue in the country in the first half of the 1800s, the “hollow-cut” is most frequently found. The profile was “hollowed out’ of the white paper, which was then mounted on a black background of paper or cloth, so that the head showed black surrounded by the white cut-out. Sometimes details of hair or dress were added in ink on the white paper.
The examples of Wood’s work that I have found are of that type. One is the portrait of Captain Simeon Crittenden (Fig. 2, left), Revolutionary soldier who lived, died, and was buried as a neighbor of Ezra Wood. One branch of the Wood family was connected with the Crittendens by Marriage. Captain Simeon died in 1832 at the age of seventy, and it is believed that the shade was made a few years previous to that date. It is evident that the work is not that of an amateur. The features are boldly delineated, and the hair, folds of the stock, and coat collar are drawn in India ink. The sharply notched bust line is a distinguishing feature which occurs on other examples of Wood’s work.
The two silhouettes in oval frames are of Captain Crittenden’s son and daughter-in-law, David and Eunice (Figs. 3, 4, above). These are thought to have been cut some years prior to the father’s, and the style of the frames would support this belief. The similarity between the silhouettes of father and son is striking, both in features and in the stock and collar. The masculine dress may well have bee more or less standardized by the artist, but the family resemblance is probably realistic.
The fourth shade here shown (Fig. 1, left) has been attributed to Ezra Wood by a local resident, though its workmanship does not thoroughly support the ascription. It is the profile of a young lady who holds in her hand a folded card bearing the shameless inscription Aged 23 with the date 1831. This, again, is hollow-cut, and mounted not on paper but on black silk. But it will be noted that only the head with the high comb is cut out. The coils of hair, the high lace collar, and all of the figure are drawn, or painted, in ink—and not too expertly at that.
I have two other silhouettes, both unusual, which were found in Buckland, but these I feel sure are not the work of Ezra wood. One is of a lady, not hollow-cut but with the head cut from white paper and pasted against black, instead of the black on white which is more usual for this type. The other is the profile of an infant, a subject rarely found. It is hollow-cut, mounted over black silk, and lacks ink drawing. These may have been the work of an itinerant silhouettist, or possibly of another local resident as yet unidentified. But pending the time when further research will reveal other silhouettists of western Massachusetts, Ezra wood of Buckland at least may be accorded his rightful place among the many exponents of shadow portraiture.