ArtLex Art Dictionary




sSilhouette - An outline filled with a solid color, typically black on a white ground, and most often for a portrait. Silhouette-like images can be found among Stone Age cave paintings and ancient Greek vase paintings, and Indonesian shadow puppets. But the term and what most people think of as silhouettes originated in the early eighteenth century in Europe.

The term "silhouette" originates from the name of Etienne de Silhouette, a Frenchman who was a finance minister to the Duke of Orleans. He was not the originator of this type of picture, but the French were apparently very impressed by his work: they came to refer to all works of this type by his name. [Aside: Do you know what was named after Amerigo Vespucci? . . . the Earl of Sandwich? . . . Thomas Crapper?!]

In England, the first silhouettes may have been the profiles made of King William and Queen Mary, produced about 1700. The English called them "shades." Their popularity was established by 1720, and spread to France and to the United States later in the century. The first silhouettes were painted images, taken from a subject's shadow, and subsequently reduced in size, often with a pantograph. The medium of early silhouettes was lamp black (soot) on plaster or glass.

Most later silhouettes have been created by cutting a positive shape from black paper from direct observation of a model, at a smaller size, then mounting it on a white ground.

Some synonyms in various languages are: cutout, papercutting, scissorscraft, sherenschnitte (German), papirklip (Norwegian?), wycinanki (Polish?), and kirigami (Japanese).

(pr. si'loo-wet")







see thumbnail to rightJohn Miers (English, 18th century), Profile of a Lady, painted silhouette in an oval frame. Miers is known as the most famous English silhouette artist of his time.John Field (English, 18th-19th century), Portrait of an Officer, bronzed silhouette. John Field was John Meirs' partner for a while, inheriting Miers's business at his death.Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827), Profile of a young man, 1809, hollow-cut silhouette -- a negative space was cut from white paper, then mounted on a black ground.



see thumbnail to leftAuguste Edouart (French, 1789-1861), Frank Johnson, Leader of the Brass Band of the 128th Regiment in Saratoga, with his wife, Helen, 1843-1844, silhouette, 11 1/4 x 9 1/4 inches (28.6 x 23.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.Hippolyte Bayard (French, 1801-1887), Arrangement of Specimens, Paris, about 1842, direct positive print, 10 15/16 x 8 1/2 inches (27.7 x 21.6 cm), J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA. Bayard invented a photographic process between 1837 and 1839 capable of producing negatives or positives. He created this photographic process independently of the work of Daguerre. Bayard photographed historic monuments during the 1850's. See photography.



see thumbnail to rightAnna Atkins and Anne Dixon (British, London, 19th century), Equisetum sylvaticum, 1853, cyanotype,10 x 7 7/8 inches, J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, CA.



see thumbnail to leftKara Walker (American, 1969-), A Means to an End A Shadow Drama in Five Acts, 1995, hard-ground etching and aquatint on five sheets, Landfall Press Archive, Milwaukee Art Museum, WI. See African-American art and projection.




see thumbnail to rightKara Walker, Danse de la Nubienne Nouveaux, 1998, paper silhouette installation, 120 x 240 inches overall, Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica, CA.





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