The Elusive Painted Silhouettes of Max Noël

Over the years I’ve collected a small number of painted silhouettes made by a French artist called Max Noël. All I know about him comes from his silhouettes, which are elusive and hard to find.

Two women painted on separate cards, each facing left
Two female friends painted in 1922 by Max Noël

As is often the way with early twentieth-century silhouettists there’s no information about Max Noël online (at least, not until I publish this blog). Max painted, rather than cut, his silhouettes onto smooth, shiny card before scratching details into the still-wet paint, perhaps using the back of his paintbrush or some other sharp implement. He also sometimes added further details in thinner paint, for instance wisps of hair.

Working with wet paint on card

silhouettes of a man with hat and spectacles facing left, signed Max Noël '23
Man with hat and spectacles, painted in 1923

Painted silhouettes were relatively unusual in the twentieth century. In the late eighteenth century painting was actually the preferred method of making them, but almost all twentieth-century artists (including me) prefer to cut their silhouettes with scissors rather than paint them with a brush.

Max’s work is marked by an expert fluidity of style, which tells me he was working fairly fast. My best guess (without actually trying it out) is that each took him no more than five minutes, ten at the most.

The shiny card he favoured would have slowed the drying time of the paint, giving him time to add his scratched-in details. It would also have made the silhouettes difficult to carry around. His clients would have had to carry them very carefully for at least an hour! One silhouette is spoiled by a smudge on the chin, indicating this didn’t always happen. It’s a shame, as it’s otherwise a wonderful silhouette.

The cat-tail silhouettist

Silhouette of a man with spotty tie, signed Max Noël with the inscription: Marseilles, 29/10/43
Man with a tie, painted by Max Noël in 1943

The earliest Max Noël silhouettes I’ve found date from 1922, while the most recent is dated 1945. So he was working for well over twenty years (although, oddly, I’ve never seen a silhouette dated from the 1930s).

Max always signed and dated his silhouettes, but his early signatures are quite indecipherable. This meant that until recently I had no idea what his name was! All I had at first were three similar, painted silhouettes made in the 1920s.

These early signatures are underlined with a strange design, looking like the rear end of a cat with a raised, curled-over tail. I’ve no idea what this really is, but it helped me to call him the cat-tail silhouettist!

Signatures from the 1920s with cat-tail design (top row) and from the 1940s (bottom)

The most recent addition to the collection was my 1943 example above, which was the first I’ve seen with a readable signature. I finally got to know the artist’s name! A silhouette of a World War II soldier (seen online) confirms his name and is dated 1945.

1922 Colonial Exhibition

Silhouette of man facing left. Signature is hard to read but an inscription reads: Exps Coloniale, Marseilles, 18/8/22
Man with a wing-collar shirt, painted at the 1922 Marseilles Colonial Exhibition (chin smudged)

Many of his silhouettes, dating both from the 1920s and 1940s, were created in Marseilles, France. It’s therefore reasonable to conclude that Max lived and worked there for most of his life. One of the 1922 silhouettes has a hand-written inscription telling me that it was painted at the Exposition Coloniale, Marseilles, on 18/8/22. This exhibition was a major event and was open from April to November that year. It’s possible Max had a booth there to make souvenir silhouettes for visitors.

Today, it’s impossible to imagine a “colonial exhibition” – trumpeting the wonders or empire – but in the early twentieth century such events were considered perfectly acceptable. They took place during the 1900s and 1920s in major cites throughout Europe, often lasting for several months. Visitors travelled from all over Europe, keen to learn more about far-off lands and cultures. Many silhouette artists set up stalls at these events, catering to many thousands of visitors over several months.

World War II

Silhouette of a soldier facing left, signed Max Noël with a hand-written inscription: Souvenir de Marseilles France 31/8/45
Silhouette of a soldier, painted by Max Noël in 1945 (courtesy of Erin)

A feature of Max Noël’s work is that all the silhouettes I’ve seen face left. My own experiments with painted silhouettes tell me that it’s easier for a right-handed artist to paint a left-facing silhouette, for the same reason that it’s easier for a right-handed artist to cut a right-facing silhouette: you can see the profile more easily as you paint it.

I imagine he worked with his clients seated in a chair already facing to the left. Most sitters would not question this, but I know from experience that a few would! What did he do with those sitters who insisted their “best side” was to the right?

At the end of World War II Marseilles was an important base for American soldiers. This last silhouette was taken of such a soldier in 1945 and found its way back to America.

Old photo of buildings and staircase. Caption top right reads: MARSEILLES EXPOSITION COLONIALE 1922, Palais de l'Indo-Chine Escalier Principal
Old photo showing visitors to the 1922 exhibition on the main staircase
Text at the base of the poster reads: Exposition Nationale Colonial, Marseilles 1922, Avril - Novembre
Poster for the 1922 Colonial Exhibition where Max Noël was making souvenir silhouettes

I’d love to know more about this artist. If you own or have seen any silhouettes made and signed in this way please do drop me a line, especially if one of them happens to face right! His style is both unique and distinctive.

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1 month ago

Fascinating. Love the cat tail signature. So enigmatic and artful.

Eduardo Lopez Morton
1 month ago

Very cool! Thanks for sharing!

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