A Brief History of the Silhouette

Silhouette portraits were popularized in 18th century France, due to severe economic demands imposed by French finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette. Because of de Silhouette's austerity measures, his name became synonymous with anything done or made cheaply, but his nom de famille was best remembered for cheap and popular profiles cut from black card to record a person's appearance.

Prior to 18th century France, the Greeks in 7th century BC were known for the  black-figure style vase painting. Solid figures and ornaments were painted on vessels in opaque colors. Red- as well as black-figure vases were one of the most important sources of mythology, iconography and day-to-day depictions of Greek life. 

Five thousand years before that, the Egyptians developed a visual narrative style comprised of figures and objects in profile. Depictions of these subjects found their way as decoration on stoneware, temple walls and papyrus.

Around the same time the theme of visually documenting life was recorded by virtually every tribal , primitive and indigenous peoples. Scenes of hunters and their prey evolved into complex narratives of tribal life and interest in the animal and spirit worlds. 

But it could be said that the silhouette may have began as far back as cave paintings. Crudely rendered images painted with dirt and charcoal mixed with spit and animal fat, told simple visual narratives of the cohabitation of human and animal life.




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