A Cut Of Silhouette History

(Second and final part of the “silhouette” post - See first part if you haven't already)

A recent article in the Harvard Magazine, November-December 2014, “Shadow Art,” presents the history of the silhouette art form.

Named after Etienne de Silhouette, “a penny-pinching minister of finances under Louis XV, whose tenure was brief because parsimony rarely has a big following… The phrase à la Silhouette came to mean doing things on the cheap.”

The “cheap” concept evolved to become conflated with the economical and growing art form of commissioning portraits cut as silhouettes in lieu of sitting for painted portraits. It became a popular “craze” from the last quarter of the 18th C to the middle of the 19th C. As photography gained popularity—which was another “new” intriguing art form—silhouette work started losing its popularity.

An exhibit “Silhouettes: from Craft to Art,” was mounted during the summer of 2014 at the Houghton Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, MA. The exhibit is reviewed in a blog post linked here, which includes beautiful images from the late 1700s which are held in the collection of the Library.

An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard university's Houghton Library.


An example of traditional silhouette technique in which the artist basically traces the outline of the face. The vignette was printed in the second volume of Johann Caspar Lavater’s treatise on physiognomy, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe published in Leipzig between 1775 and 1778. From the collection of the Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

Here is the description from the Houghton Library blog post:

A draftsman sat behind a movable standing frame which held a sheet of glass and that leaned against the shoulder of the sitter. The draftsman drew the outline of the sitter’s profile on a piece of translucent, oiled paper placed on the frame. A stick of wood or iron attached to the middle of the frame supported the sheet of glass and could be moved by the draftsman.

A recent exhibit Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne: Paris 1880 – 1910 during 2014 at the Columbus Museum of Art exhibited several examples of a variation of a form of silhouettes as “shadow theater art” designed for the cabaret, Le Chat Noir in Paris.

Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris. From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.
Image of piece of cut-out that would be mounted to a stick for use in the shadow theater performed at Le Chat Noir, Paris.
From the collection du Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia.

The individual pieces conveyed silhouette-style scenes attached to a stick that would be raised above a screen (as in a puppet theater style) and narrated to convey the story via a “Shadow play.” Henri Rivière was the designer of the shadow theater scenes displayed in the exhibit.

I was profoundly moved at how the silhouettes in the shadow theater pieces dramatically presented a battle as a single cutout “scene.” It was almost a “hair-stand-on-end” moment to imagine the earthy aroma in the tavern, the boisterous crowd, talking and jostling, and then the passion of the French peasants, laborers, and countrymen captivated by the animated storytelling of the narrator. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination in a shadow play – I presume in a curious way, like sitting on the edge of a seat listening to a radio program.

The shadow theater images in the exhibit (as shown in the image here) are another example of how powerful various art forms can be. Somehow the contrast of the black and white and the detail strangely conveys more emotion and the impending movement than many full-color paintings of the same scene might connote, or even a poorly executed movie with actual moving images of the scene.

For more information on silhouette art and on contemporary artists, see my previous blog post.

Note: as discussed in the previous post, for Joy Yarbrough and the silhouettes she creates, she cuts them freehand while holding the paper and scissors in the air and looking at her subject. She does not use a traditional set-up as shown in this post.


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