If there is one person whom Geneva owes everything in terms of paper cut-outs, that person is Jean Huber (1721-1786). Huber sought to raise this minor form to the level of the fine arts and his work indeed met with significant international success. The artist truly founded his artistic ambitions on “cut-out pictures”, which he saw as “Ideas” or “pictures that leave one thinking”. Nicknamed “Huber-Voltaire” for the countless portraits he did of “the Sage of Ferney”, he won great recognition for himself as a maker of silhouettes between 1755 and 1780. Diderot wrote this about him: “Anyone who has seen the cut-outs of the famous Huber of Geneva strongly senses the importance of the glance. It is with the most surprising truth that this one-of-a-kind artist manages, without doing a drawing, to represent each object by simply cutting a piece of paper” (Encyclopédie, 1772).
Pictet Bank possesses five of Huber’s cut-outs, including L’Air de flûte (A Tune on the Flute) and La Promenade dominicale (The Sunday Walk). He produced these “cut-out pictures” with a blade, often directly applied to the paper, that is, without doing a preliminary sketch. For the details, on the other hand, he employed an etching needle. Executed on parchment, his works evince the artist’s taste for nature and hunting, and recall his paintings depicting similar scenes – which were often inspired by the Dutch painter Philips Wouwerman’s original renderings.
In Geneva, beginning in 1790, young talents, too, took up the genre, artists like Georges Du Pan (1754-1808), with Les Lavandières (The Washerwomen) and À cheval dans la campagne (On Horseback in the Country); Michel Lullin (1754-1802), with À l’ombre d’un chêne (In the Shade of an Oak Tree); the genre, animal and portrait painter Jacques-Laurent Agasse (1767-1849), who did, for example, Grand arbre avec deux paysans (Large Tree with Two Peasants); or Henri Serre (active late 18th century) and his Chemin faisant (On the Way). If Huber won acclaim for Genevan cut-outs, Georges Du Pan was an amateur practitioner of the form who attained nearly the same level of excellence. Having studied in Huber’s studio, he turned out large-scale productions that run up to one metre in length.
Just like the cut-outs or the popular poyas fashioned in Gruyère (Pays d’Enhaut), the Genevan cut-outs display real technical virtuosity. However, Geneva’s version of the genre developed amongst renowned artists and has nothing to do with folk traditions. The themes illustrated often echo those elaborated in the great neoclassical painting of the time such as historiated landscapes or scenes of country life. On Horseback in the Country that Du Pan created features, for example, a bucolic scene that recalls the classic pictures of the Genevan painter Pierre-Louis De la Rive.
Genevan cut-outs, finally, are characterised by a cardboard or parchment support that is naturally white in colour or was whitened beforehand. The colour is not merely an aesthetic component, however, but also serves a practical function since the silhouettes were originally viewed against the light between two glass plates. In collections today, they are generally framed and mounted on a colour background.