Silhouettes - an outline filled with a solid colour, typically black on a white background - have been found in cave paintings from the stone age, ancient Greek vase decorations and in Indonesian shadow puppetry by way of historical examples.
But the modern equivalent originates in Europe in the early eighteenth century when aristocrats would hire silhouettists to make paper cutout portraits of family members and guests. The art grew in popularity as it was a cheap way to have a person's likeness rendered prior to the advent of photography.
The name silhouette derives from the miserly French finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette from the 1760s, who was known to be fond of doing things cheaply, including making paper cutouts at home. The populace wore black clothing to mock the unfeeling taxation overlord, going 'a la silhouette' in protest. The name, but not the negative connotation, stuck.
Silhouettes had their original modern heyday between about 1790 and 1840 until cameras became available. Many of the early silhouettes were actually painted and many artists became rich on the trade. But the art has never truly died out.
The above images come from an anonymous German childrens book without title that contains 12 silhouettes, the majority accompanied by short extracts from Cervantes or Shakespeare and which are online at the Braunschweig University Library. It was published c. 1900 and would appear to be an elite private press release. The images and text take up a very small space in the middle of the pages.
- Charles history of silhouettes (decidedly personal view, but with a number of early examples).
- Peggy McClard biography of silhouette artistes.
- Peggy McClard gallery of vintage silhouettes.
- De Hoogh antique silhouette portraits from artist John Buncombe.
- Silhoutte picture making at CutArts.
- The Silhouette Man - artist.
- Fashion industry silhouettes from the 20th century.
- Weblog on silhouettes by 3rd generation silhouettist (probably related to CutArts above).