Thursday, January 6, 2011

Silhouette Art

Feliz "dia de los reyes magos", or "Happy Three Kings Day"! It's a popular holiday in Spain, more so even than Christmas, which falls every Jan 6th (the 12th Day of Christmas) to commemorate the day the Wise Men arrived from the East. It's celebrated with food (a sweet fruit bread with a hidden toy inside), gifts, and parades of "kings" wearing shimmery robes and turbines.

I had an enjoyable Christmas and a relaxing New Year spent with loved ones, I hope you did as well. :) One item I was particularly excited to receive this year was a book I've had my eye on for months called, Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow, by Emma Rutherford.

It chronicles the history of silhouette cutting, etching, painting, and drawing, beginning with the Chinese and Indonesian art of shadow puppetry in the 11th Century; proceeding to the original coining of the term "silhouette" in 18th Century France (so named after the thrifty Minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette--thereby labeling silhouettes a cheap form of portraiture); and finally ending with the modern-day resurgence of silhouette popularity and graphic appeal.

Indonesian Puppets

Modern-day graphic artist,
Chad Barrett

Modern-day graphic artist,
Wilhem Staehle

During their heyday in the 18th Century, "profile likenesses" (as they were generally called) were used for everything from Neoclassical home decor---borrowing from popular Roman forms and motifs; to ivory silhouette jewelry (given as reminders of loved ones passed on); to Physiognomy, the pseudo-science of determining a person's character through their facial features.

As you can see from my obsession with Lotte Reiniger, I am a sucker for the silhouette...

...they are simplistic and elegant; pure line and contrast. Despite not revealing much in detail or expression, they allude to so much detail and expression, more so I feel than a painted portrait. This is because they were the actual shadowed forms of living persons traced onto paper. They were once described as "the truest representation that can be given of man." In a time without cameras, silhouettes were certainly the quickest and most accurate way to capture a person's likeness.

More than being accurate, they can be imaginative... and haunting. A dark void staring out at you from the abyss, or the ghostly figure of a great-aunt long since dead. But with that mystery comes so much potential for the viewer to decide the details. Here is mine and my husband's silhouette side by side. :)

The technique of the silhouette itself has evolved from simple black and white cutouts (in this case blue) done by machine or hand (1750's)... Francis Torond's delicate inked silhouettes depicting family life on which he quilled lace and frills in such minute detail (1770's)... William Welling's formal naval commissions which added even more depth and detail in the clothing and objects through varying saturations of watercolor (1780's)... Jane Read's unique style of sepia paints on the reverse side of glass, creating highly detailed and realistic portraits (1800's)... Jacob Spornberg's and John Woodhouse's "Etruscan profiles" painted on the reverse side of glass which created a wonderful two-paned effect, which when illuminated by candlelight, caused the appearance of a flickering figure which cast it's own shadow (1820's)... the Royal Victoria Gallery's technique of bronzed embellishments (1840's)... whimsical drawings in children's books as envisioned by the German silhouettist and illustrator, Paul Konewka (1870's, not included in the book)... modern-day graphic artist, "Jezebel", who has rediscovered the lost art--and by giving it a retro twist--has found it to be a profitable greeting card industry (also not in the book)... contemporary artist, Kara Walker, who has reinvented the silhouette by infusing it's conventional politeness with a raw and horrifying narrative that harkens back to the darker side of "genteel society".

The stark imagery of slavery is compounded by being life-sized and plastered over a huge wall, forcing the viewer to traverse and experience it's full impact.

As jarring as it is to see, the discomfort is necessary to remind us of the barbaric and demoralizing treatment committed against blacks for hundreds of years. I applaud Kara's courage and imagination in taking this art form and making it her own.

To all silhouette affectionados I highly recommend this book, Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow. If not for its depth and description of an obscurely recognized art form, then at least for its inspiring collection of full-color images.

Silhouettes are a beautiful homage to simplicity, history, and elegance, adding an instant touch of antiquity with their very presence. Their accessible nature and elusive appeal will no doubt continue to capture artists and designers alike, evolving from the whims of the imagination and creating as much possibility as void.


"The first picture hath been nothing else
but the shadowe of a man
drawne about with lines."

-Fanciscus Junius (1589-1677)


  1. What a lovely post and what beautiful pictures - thanks for sharing!

    I love Lotte Reininger, too, and I need to learn more about Kara Walker; but I am particularly interested in the second Wellings silhouette of the seated naval gentleman with a book in his hand and his dog at his feat. Do you happen to know anything more about that one? Like when it was done or even who the gentleman is?

  2. Thank you for commenting Volgivagant! I'm sorry I did not get back to you sooner, I should have checked comments more carefully. :)

    The caption of the William Wellings painting with the dog says, "Henry Belasyse, 2nd Earl Fauconberg (1743-1802), William Wellings (fl. 1778-96), detail painted on card, 9-4/5 inches high. Lidstone Collection".

    I hope those key words will help you discover a little more about the story behind the silhouette, I have no doubt each one has a precious history!

  3. Thanks for sharing these images - quite a stunning array. I'm interested in the relationship between silhouette art and early photography, my primary interest being photohistory. I'm currently researching a couple of early to mid-19th Century silhouettists who made the transition to portrait photographers.

  4. Sounds like a very interesting topic! Please post a link to any information you may find or publish. :)

  5. As a professional silhouette artist, I especially enjoyed your post about Silhouette-Art, beautiful recompilation of works. May I share your link on my blog?
    Denise Clark

    1. Hello Denise, thank you for your comment. Yes please, feel free to share my post on your lovely blog, I would greatly appreciate it! You are very talented, I especially love your children's silhouettes, and the one titled "Race". Thank you for keeping the art of silhouette-making alive! :)