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A silhouette is the image of a person, an object or scene consisting of the outline and a basically featureless interior, with the silhouetted object usually being black. Although the art form has been popular since the mid-18th century, the term “silhouette” was seldom used until the early decades of the 19th century. Silhouette images may be created in any artistic media, but the tradition of cutting portraits from black card has continued into the 21st century.


From its original graphic meaning, the term "silhouette" has been extended to describe the sight or representation of a person, object or scene that is backlit, and appears dark against a lighter background. Anything that appears this way, for example, a figure standing backlit in a doorway, may be described as "in silhouette". Because a silhouette emphasises the outline, the word has also been used in the fields of fashion and fitness to describe the shape of a person's body or the shape created by wearing clothing of a particular style or period.




The word "silhouette" derives from the name of √Čtienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who, in 1759, was forced by France's credit crisis during the Seven Years War to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy. Because of de Silhouette's austere economies, his name became eponymous with anything done or made cheaply and so with these outline portraits. Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance.


The term "silhouette", although existing from the 18th century, was not applied to the art of portrait-making until the 19th century. In the 18th and early 19th century, “profiles” or “shades” as they were called were made by one of 3 methods: (1) painted on ivory, plaster, paper, card, or in reverse on glass; (2) “hollow-cut” where the negative image was traced and then cut away from light colored paper which was then laid atop a dark background; and (3) “cut & paste” where the figure was cut out of dark paper (usually free-hand) and then pasted onto a light background.


The silhouette is closely tied in mythology with the origins of art. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (circa 77-79AD) Books XXXIV and XXXV, accounts the origin of painting. In Chapter 5 of Book XXXV, he writes, “We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow [...omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta].“. In Chapter 15, he tells the story of Butades of Corinth: “Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp [umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit]. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.”


The advantage of the profile portrait is that, because it depends strongly upon the proportions and relationship of the bony structures of the face, forehead, nose and chin, the image is clear and simple, and deviates less from the appearance of the sitter with changes caused by age, weight and illness. Profile portraits have been employed on coinage since the Roman era. The early Renaissance period saw a fashion for painted profile portraits and many famous people such as Lorenzo de Medici were depicted in profile.


Recent research at Stanford University indicates that where previous studies of face recognition have been based on frontal views, studies with silhouettes show humans are able to extract accurate information about gender and age from the silhouette alone. This is an important concept for artists who design characters for visual media, because the silhouette is the most immediately recognizable and identifiable shape of the character.


A silhouette portrait can be painted or drawn. However, the traditional method of creating silhouette portraits is to cut them from lightweight black cardboard, and mount them on a pale (usually white) background. This was the work of specialist artists, often working out of booths at fairs or markets. A traditional silhouette portrait artist would cut the likeness of a person, freehand, within a few minutes. Some modern silhouette artists also make silhouette portraits from photographs of people taken in profile.


The work of the physiognomist Johanna Caspar Lavater, who used silhouettes to analyse facial types, is thought to have promoted the art. One of the most famous silhouette artists of the 18th century, August Edouart, cut thousands of portraits in duplicate. His subjects included French and British nobility and US presidents. Much of his personal collection was lost in a shipwreck. In England, the best known silhouette artist was John Miers, who travelled and worked in different cities, but had a studio on the Strand in London.


The camera signaled the end of the silhouette as a widespread form of portraiture. The skill was not lost, and traveling silhouette artists continued to work at state fairs into the 20th century. The popularity of the silhouette portrait is being reborn in a new generation of people who appreciate the silhouette as a nostalgic way of capturing a significant occasion. In the United States silhouette artists have websites advertising their services at weddings and other such functions. In England there is an active group of silhouette artists. In Australia, S. John Ross plied his scissors at agricultural shows for 60 years until his death in 2008. Other artists such as Douglas Carpenter produce silhouette images using pen and ink.


Since the late 18th century, silhouette artists have also made small scenes cut from card and mounted on a contrasting background like the portraits. These pictures, known as "paper cuts", were often, but not necessarily, silhouette images. Among 19th century artists to work in this way was the author Hans Christian Andersen. The modern artist Robert Ryan creates intricate images by this technique, sometimes using them to produce silk-screen prints.