Quick History: Silhouettes

Quick History: Silhouettes

Anna Hoffman
Mar 22, 2012

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, silhouettes became popular as cheap, quick ways of capturing likenesses. Often created by amateurs, especially women, they are now known as sentimental keepsakes of the Victorian variety, sweet mementos of anonymous everyday people from the past memorialized in ink, paint, or cut paper, and even painted onto porcelain. Let's take a look at this traditional art form and also at its name, whose etymology is an interesting riddle.

The tracing of silhouettes can be linked to historical precedents like Classical black-figure vases (image 2), the ancient Chinese art of paper cutting, and even the legendary origins of picture-making, itself. Pliny the Elder, writing around the 1st century AD, told the story of a 5th century Corinthian girl, Dibutade, who traced her lover's shadow, cast by candlelight, because he was leaving on a journey and she wanted to keep his image with her. In the 18th century, when silhouettes came into fashion, Dibutade was often invoked and even depicted in art (image 3).

The Dibutade story is interesting not only because it describes the same candlelight method favored in the 19th century (image 4), but