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 also because the artist is a woman, an amateur, who wants a souvenir of her beloved. These were often the circumstances under which silhouettes were created. It even became something of a parlor game for women in the 19th century. Because of its simplicity, and because the shadow could be traced against a wall, it did not require training or even much skill, and it fit into the expected amateur artistic pursuits of the Jane Austen-era woman (image 5). Even the earliest known silhouettes, of William and Mary, were painted by a woman in the late 17th century.
There were also professional silhouette-painters and -cutters; these were usually men, who advertised the speed and accuracy of their work. In the mid-19th century, several artists patented various machines and devices intended to help with the accuracy or duplication of silhouettes.
The market for professional portraits was often travelers or immigrants, people who wanted to send mementos of themselves home to family members, or who wanted to bring such souvenirs with them on their travels. Of course, in that era, when transportation was difficult, and journeys somewhat uncommon, silhouettes served as valuable keepsakes for family or friends separated by any significant distance.
The most famous silhouettist was the Frenchman Auguste Edouart, who made full-length portraits out of cut black paper (image). He moved to England in 1815 and then spent years in America around the 1830s, popularizing the art form there. He recorded thousands of images of his contemporaries, famous and anonymous.
The allure of professionally-created silhouettes was not only the appealing Neo-Classical aesthetic or even the accuracy of the resemblance. It was, primarily, cheap and quick — certainly much cheaper and quicker than a regular portrait. Tellingly, while sitters wore their finest clothes for traditional portraits, for silhouettes they typically wore their everyday dress.
In fact, the term silhouette is most likely related to either the cheapness or the quickness of the medium. The word is named for Étienne de Silhouette, a French economist whose friendship with Madame de Pompadour got him the lofty position of Controller-General of France in 1759. Faced with a dwindling, mismanaged treasury during the Seven Years' War, de Silhouette attempted to apply some of the economic policies and practices he had observed during a year's sojourn in England. But attacking the privileges and pocketbooks of the aristocracy was not a way to gain popularity in the Ancien Régime and he was dismissed from office amid a torrent of criticism only 8 months after accepting the post.
Up to this point, silhouettes were known as "shades" or "profiles" in Great Britain, and as "l'art de l'ombre" ("shadow art") in France. But very quickly, by the 1770s in France and Germany and by the 1790s in England, the name silhouette became applied to the art form. By the 19th century, the terms were used interchangeably. The term silhouette was further popularized by Edouart in Britain and America,.
So why did this somewhat obscure French economist give his name to the art form? One common explanation is that it was initially a derogatory reference to the brevity of de Silhouette's tenure, because of how quickly one can complete a silhouette. Another explanation is that he was an avid amateur, very proud of his own skills at making l'art de l'ombre, and that his collection at his château was well-known. While possible, of course, it seems questionable that this fleetingly public figure would have become so intimately associated with a common art form.
To me, the most plausible explanation is that de Silhouette's name had become synonymous with "cheap" in general in France. Habits à la Silhouette were men's waistcoats that had no pockets — cheap not only because it cost less to make garments without pockets (less fabric, less labor), but because not having pockets suggested that you didn't have money to put in them, a snide allusion to de Silhouette's failed policies. Like the habits à la Silhouette, silhouette portraits were sleeker, cheaper, and more quickly made than traditional portraits, and somehow, the name stuck.
Today, you can collect antique silhouettes, commission or make silhouettes of your own loved ones, or take your silhouettes on teacups (image 12), tote bags (image 13), or découpaged coasters (image14).
Part of the reason for its popularity today must be related to the rich, beautiful and disturbing work of the artist Kara Walker, whose silhouetted scenes address the historical legacy of violence, mistreatment and revenge between blacks and whites. Using the silhouette, a black-and-white medium popular during the era of American slavery, Walker brilliantly subverts the sweetness of the form, updating it into something too urgent and incisive to be anything but modern.
Sources: A few years ago, Emma Rutherford published a beautiful and well-illustrated book called Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow. If you are interested in a more in-depth history, you can buy it here. Online, the richest information can be found in Penley Knipe's research paper, Shades and Shadow-Pictures: The Materials and Techniques of American Portrait Silhouettes, which you can read at cool.conservation-us.org.
Images: 1 & 11 Lauren Liess via From the Right Bank; 2 Metropolitan Museum of Art; 3 Joseph-Benoît Suvée's The Invention of Drawing, c. 1791, via the Getty Museum; 4 Marie Antoinette's Cercle Privé blog; 5 Janeausten.co.uk; 6 & 7 Brooklyn Museum; 8 Papercutters.info; 9 Design Labyrinth; 10 Vogue via Habitually Chic; 12 Peak of Chic; 13 Mothology; 14 John Derian via Lonny; 15 Mad Men via Tom & Lorenzo.
(Re-edited from a post originally published 08/26/10 - AH)