In the early 19th century, artist Martha Ann Honeywell would sweep through towns like a band on tour. An artist who specialized in needlework, embroidery, and cut paper, among other mediums, she’d set up shop at a museum, tavern, or boardinghouse, charge 50 cents a ticket and perform three times a day for two hours at a time, cutting paper silhouettes or performing feats of delicate penmanship and needlework. A bespoke silhouette of your own profile might set you back 25 cents. Kids were half-price.
Her creations were lovely, but the main draw was Honeywell herself and how she used her remarkable body to create extraordinary works of art. Born without forearms and hands, and with only three toes on one foot, she crafted art using her mouth, her toes, and her residual arm.
Scholar Laura Daen explained how Honeywell worked in a 2018 podcast for the Disability History Association: “Patrons describe that within seconds she would cut their profile out of black paper, paste it onto a white backdrop, sometimes adorn it with gold or silver ink, and then she would add her signature—usually something like… ‘done without hands by Martha Ann Honeywell.'”
Honeywell spent nearly 60 years as a traveling artist, visiting five countries and 32 American cities, according to Daen’s 2017 essay “Martha Ann Honeywell: Art, Performance, and Disability in the Early Republic” for the Journal of the Early Republic. She achieved a striking level of fame and financial autonomy in her life, something she managed almost entirely through her own artistic skill and business savvy. She made works for queens and presidents. People wrote poems in her honor. One fan even proposed marriage. “Rather than condemning, fearing, or deriding her uniqueness, customers proclaimed her to be uniquely American,” writes Daen.
Honeywell is one of the featured artists in New-York Historical’s exhibition In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes (on view from Jan. 17 through April 5.) A compelling look at a singular art form, the exhibition traces silhouette creation from its popular heyday in the late 18th century to modern-day revivals with artists like Kara Walker, Béatrice Coron, Kumi Yamashita, and James Prosek. Among the art works on display are two examples of Honeywell’s specialty, intricate cutouts of the Lord’s Prayer.
Honeywell was born in 1786 in Westchester, NY, to a farming family. A year later, her father, Gilbert, moved his wife and six children to New York City’s Lower East Side, where he opened a fruit store. Patrons would drop by just to gawk at young Martha Ann, and while her parents resisted putting her on display, they were also swayed by the potential source of income for her as she got older. When she was 12, she performed her first show at New York’s American Museum, threading a needle and sewing and turning the pages of a book with her foot. After that, she was often on the road, first with her mother and then on her own after age 18, honing her craft and sometimes performing with other artists with disabilities.
Daen’s research charts Honeywell’s years on tour in both Europe and America, the many newspapers she was featured in, and the boldfaced names she bumped into along the way. She created a particularly elaborate Lord’s Prayer for Queen Charlotte of England, which she presented in person, and later sent another version to President John Quincy Adams as a token of her esteem and appreciation. (The marriage proposal reportedly came in Dublin, when a man placed a ring on her toe that she started to wear as part of her performing costume.)
Honeywell died in 1856 at the age of 70, having created a life for herself that challenged perceptions of women’s independence and what disability does and doesn’t mean. As one fan poem Daen uncovered said, “Dame Nature with ambition glowed / Her various works t’excel, / Great mental powers and charms bestow’d / On Martha Honeywell.”
Check out Honeywell’s work and much more at exhibition In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, on view from Jan. 17 through April 5.
Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor