Silhouettes have a long and varied history that spans centuries but in its simplest form a silhouette is “the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, usually black, its edges matching the outline of the subject. The interior of a silhouette is featureless, and the whole is typically presented on a light background, usually white, or none at all.”
Silhouettes have had various names throughout the centuries such as “shades” or “profiles” with the modern-day usage of the word silhouette not taking hold until the 1800’s. A French Finance Minister, Étienne de Silhouette, in the late 1750’s had the well-known distinction of economizing and doing things “on the cheap” in the eyes of wealthy French citizens. Etienne de Silhouette enjoyed hand cutting profiles as a hobby and therefore “shades” cut from black paper became commonly known as a “silhouette”.
A hand cut silhouette portrait was then as it still is now the most economical way to record a person’s likeness in comparison to other art forms that can carry a heavier price tag — a price often out of the reach of the average consumer. Silhouettes afforded the average person the opportunity to have a custom portrait done of their loved ones.
Throughout the years silhouettes have taken on many forms and their clean lines and simple appeal have been applied to many art forms such as film/ television, photography, book illustrations, theatre, and graphic design.
Still unsure of what it means to have a silhouette cut? Check out these videos and you’ll quickly learn what it means to have your portrait snipped in a matter of minutes!
Gears Behind the Ears – The Art of the Silhouette by Disney Insider A wonderful video from Disney that showcases the magic, simplicity, and beauty of the art of silhouette cutting.
Every Role a Starring Role – Disneyland Resort Silhouette Artist by Disney Parks Another video from Disney featuring the role of the Silhouette Artist in their parks.
Silhouettes (1936) by British Pathe A clip featuring silhouette artist, Robert Easton, in London cutting a likeness of a young lady in a studio setting. Also, features Easton drawing a quick sketch of British politician, Leslie Hore Belisha .
Silhouette Pictures (1931) by British Pathe A short clip featuring Robert Easton explaining the process of silhouette cutting to a young girl. Easton takes her through the steps of the silhouette cutting process one cut at a time and ends with showing the young girl her silhouette portrait.
Silhouette Portraits (1946) by British Pathe A brief clip featuring silhouette artist, Sebastian Ross, a former G.I. from the USA who spent the majority of his adult life in Australia cutting silhouettes in a public setting.
The Silhouette Cutter (1920-1929) A silent film from the early 1920’s featuring “The Silhouette Cutter” as he cuts the portrait of a young woman in his studio.