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A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century
Goethe facing a grave monument, cut paper, 1780

A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single color, 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. The silhouette differs from an outline, which depicts the edge of an object in a linear form, while a silhouette appears as a solid shape. Silhouette images may be created in any visual artistic media,[1] but was first used to describe pieces of cut paper, which were then stuck to a backing in a contrasting colour, and often framed.

Cutting portraits, generally in profile, from black card became popular in the mid-18th century, though the term silhouette was seldom used until the early decades of the 19th century, and the tradition has continued under this name into the 21st century. They represented a cheap but effective alternative to the portrait miniature, and skilled specialist artists could cut a high-quality bust portrait, by far the most common style, in a matter of minutes, working purely by eye. Other artists, especially from about 1790, drew an outline on paper, then painted it in, which could be equally quick. The leading 18th-century English "profilist" in painting, John Miers, advertised "three minute sittings",[2] and the cost might be as low as half a crown around 1800. Miers' superior products could be in grisaille, with delicate highlights added in gold or yellow, and some examples might be painted on various backings, including gesso, glass or ivory.[3] The size was normally small, with many designed to fit into a locket, but otherwise a bust some 3 to 5 inches high was typical, with half- or full-length portraits proportionately larger.

From its original graphic meaning, the term silhouette has been extended to describe the sight or representation of a person, object or scene that is backlit, and appears dark against a lighter background. Anything that appears this way, for example, a figure standing backlit in a doorway, may be described as "in silhouette". Because a silhouette emphasises the outline, the word has also been used in the fields of fashion and fitness to describe the shape of a person's body or the shape created by wearing clothing of a particular style or period.


  • Etymology and origins 1
  • History 2
    • Mythological origins 2.1
    • Profile portraits 2.2
    • Traditional silhouette portraiture 2.3
    • Artworks and illustrations 2.4
    • Shadow theatre 2.5
    • Movies 2.6
    • Photography 2.7
    • In graphic design 2.8
  • Other uses 3
    • Fashion and fitness 3.1
    • Identification 3.2
    • Military usage 3.3
    • Journalism 3.4
    • Sports shooting 3.5
  • See also 4
  • Famous silhouette images 5
  • Recent photographic images 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Etymology and origins

The word silhouette derives from the name of Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who, in 1759, was forced by France's credit crisis during the Seven Years' War to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy.[4] Because of de Silhouette's austere economies, his name became synonymous with anything done or made cheaply and so with these outline portraits.[5][6] Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance.[7][8]

The term silhouette, although existing from the 18th century, was not applied to the art of portrait-making until the 19th century. In the 18th and early 19th century, “profiles” or “shades” as they were called were made by one of three methods:

  1. painted on ivory, plaster, paper, card, or in reverse on glass;
  2. “hollow-cut” where the negative image was traced and then cut away from light colored paper which was then laid atop a dark background; and
  3. “cut and paste” where the figure was cut out of dark paper (usually free-hand) and then pasted onto a light background.[1]


Name vase by the Nessos Painter. The scene on the neck shows Heracles stabbing Nessos. The scene on the belly shows events associated with Perseus. C. 620–610 BC, now in the Athens National Archaeological Museum

Mythological origins

The silhouette is closely tied in mythology to the origins of art. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (circa 77–79 AD) Books XXXIV and XXXV, accounts the origin of painting. In Chapter 5 of Book XXXV, he writes,

“We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow [...omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta].“. In Chapter 15, he tells the story of Butades of Corinth:
“Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp [umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit]. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.” In accord with the myth, Greek Black-figure pottery painting,[9] also known as the black-figure style or black-figure ceramic (Greek, μελανόμορφα, melanomorpha, common between the 7th and 5th centuries BC) employs the silhouette and characteristic profile views of figures and objects on pottery forms. The pots themselves exhibit strong forms in outline that are indicators of their purpose, as well as being decorative. [10]

Profile portraits

The traditional method of making a silhouette portrait
Anonymous American Artist, "Mister Bethany and Patience Wright," 18th century. Private collection

For the depiction of portraits, the profile image has marked advantage over a full-face image in many circumstances, because it depends strongly upon the proportions and relationship of the bony structures of the face (the forehead, nose and chin) making the image is clear and simple. For this reason profile portraits have been employed on coinage since the Roman era. The early Renaissance period saw a fashion for painted profile portraits and many famous people such as Federico da Montefeltro and Ludovico Sforza were depicted in profile portraits. The profile portrait is strongly linked to the silhouette.

Recent research at Stanford University indicates that where previous studies of face recognition have been based on frontal views, studies with silhouettes show humans are able to extract accurate information about gender and age from the silhouette alone.[11] This is an important concept for artists who design characters for visual media, because the silhouette is the most immediately recognisable and identifiable shape of the character.[12]

Traditional silhouette portraiture

Drawing a Silhouette by Johann Rudolph Schellenberg (1740–1806)

A silhouette portrait can be painted or drawn. However, the traditional method of creating silhouette portraits is to cut them from lightweight black cardboard, and mount them on a pale (usually white) background. This was the work of specialist artists, often working out of booths at fairs or markets. A traditional silhouette portrait artist would cut the likeness of a person, freehand, within a few minutes.[13] Some modern silhouette artists also make silhouette portraits from photographs of people taken in profile.[7]

The work of the physiognomist Johann Caspar Lavater, who used silhouettes to analyse facial types, is thought to have promoted the art.[14] One of the most famous silhouette artists of the 18th century, August Edouart, cut thousands of portraits in duplicate. His subjects included French and British nobility and US presidents. Much of his personal collection was lost in a shipwreck.[15] In England, the best known silhouette artist, a painter not a cutter, was John Miers, who travelled and worked in different cities, but had a studio on the Strand in London.[16]

A traditional paper-cut illustration by Wilhelm Gross
White on black by Hans Christian Andersen.

In America, silhouettes were highly popular from about 1790 to 1840. The invention of photography signaled the end of the silhouette as a widespread form of portraiture.[7] The skill was not lost, and travelling silhouette artists continued to work at state fairs into the 20th century. The popularity of the silhouette portrait is being reborn in a new generation of people who appreciate the silhouette as a nostalgic way of capturing a significant occasion. In the United States silhouette artists, such as Cindi Harwood Rose,[17] have websites advertising their services at weddings and other such functions.[7] In England there is an active group of silhouette artists.[13] In Australia, S. John Ross plied his scissors at agricultural shows for 60 years until his death in 2008.[18] Other artists such as Douglas Carpenter produce silhouette images using pen and ink.[19]

Artworks and illustrations

Since the late 18th century, silhouette artists have also made small scenes cut from card and mounted on a contrasting background like the portraits. These pictures, known as "paper cuts", were often, but not necessarily, silhouette images.[20] Among 19th century artists to work in this way was the author Hans Christian Andersen.[21] The modern artist Robert Ryan creates intricate images by this technique, sometimes using them to produce silk-screen prints.[22]

In the late 19th and early 20th century several illustrators employed designs of similar appearance for making book illustrations. Silhouette pictures could easily be printed by blocks that were cheaper to produce and longer lasting than detailed black and white illustrations.

Silhouette pictures sometimes appear in books of the early 20th century in conjunction with colour plates. (The colour plates were expensive to produce and each one was glued into the book by hand.) Illustrators who produced silhouette pictures at this time include Arthur Rackham and William Heath Robinson. In breaking with literal realism, artists of the Vorticist, Futurist and Cubist[23] movements employed the silhouette[3]. Illustrators of the late 20th century to work in silhouette include Jan Pienkowski and Jan Ormerod. In the early 1970s, French artist Philippe Derome uses the black cut silhouette in his portraits of black people. In the 21st century, American artist Kara Walker develops this use of silhouette to present racial issues in confronting images.

Shadow theatre

Originating in the orient with traditions such as the shadow theatres of Indonesia, the shadow play became a popular entertainment in Paris during the 18th and 19th century. In the Paris of the late 19th century, the shadow theatre was particularly associated with the cabaret Le Chat Noir where Henri Rivière was the designer.[24]


Since their pioneering use by Lotte Reiniger in silent films, silhouettes have been used to dramatic effect in many movies, including many of the opening credit sequences of the James Bond films. The famous opening sequence of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents features a silhouetted profile of Alfred Hitchcock stepping into a caricatured outline of himself. A scene from E.T. showing the central characters on a flying bicycle silhouetted against the full moon became a well-known movie poster. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 contains an animated sequence in silhouette illustrating a short story The Tale of the Three Brothers that is embedded in the film. The sequence was produced by Ben Hibon for Framestore, with artwork by Alexis Lidell.

Silhouettes have also been used by recording artists in music videos. One example is the video for "Buttons" by The Pussycat Dolls, in which Nicole Scherzinger is seen in silhouette. Michael Jackson used his own distinctive silhouette both on stage and in videos such as "You Rock My World". Early iPod commercials portrayed silhouetted dancers wearing an iPod and earbuds.

The cult television program, Mystery Science Theater 3000 features the three main characters of the series watching a movie as silhouettes at the bottom of the screen.

Theatre, film and photography
Shadow theatre designed by Henri Rivière for Le Chat Noir
Scene from the film noir, The Big Combo (1955) filmed by John Alton
Band of Brothers, US soldiers silhouetted against a sunset sky.


Many photographers use the technique of photographing people, objects or landscape elements against the light, to achieve an image in silhouette. The background light might be natural, such as a cloudy or open sky, mist or fog, sunset or an open doorway (a technique known as contre-jour), or it might be contrived in a studio; see low-key lighting. Silhouetting requires that the exposure be adjusted so that there is no detail (underexposure) within the desired silhouette element, and overexposure for the background to render it bright; so a lighting ratio of 16:1 or greater is the ideal. The Zone System[25] was an aid to film photographers in achieving the required exposure ratios. High contrast film, adjustment of film development,[26] and/or high contrast photographic paper may be used in chemical-based photography to enhance the effect in the darkroom.[27] With digital processing the contrast may be enhanced through the manipulation of the contrast curve for the image.[28]

In graphic design

In media the term "to silhouette" is used for the process of separating or masking a portion of an image (such as the background) so that it does not show.

Traditionally silhouettes have often been used in advertising, particularly in poster design, because they can be cheaply and effectively printed.

An advertisement for James Whitcomb Riley's business, 1871
Poster for the Festival of Calanchi, San Marino, by Bradipone (2008)

Other uses

The fashionable silhouette of 1900

Fashion and fitness

The word "silhouette", because it implies the outline of a form, has been used in both fashion and fitness to describe the outline shape of the body from a particular angle, as altered by clothing in fashion usage, and clothed or unclothed where fitness is concerned,(e.g. a usage applied here by the Powerhouse Museum. Advertising for both these fields urges people, women in particular, to achieve a particular appearance, either by corsetry, diet or exercise. The term was in use in advertising by the early 20th century. Many gyms and fitness studios use the word "silhouette" either in their name or in their advertising.[29]

Historians of costume also use the term when describing the effect achieved by the clothes of different periods, so that they might describe and compare the silhouette of the 1860s with that of the other decades of the 19th century. A desirable silhouette could be influenced by many factors. The invention of crinoline steel influenced the silhouette of women in the 1850s and 60s. The posture of the Princess Alexandra influenced the silhouette of English women in the Edwardian period. See advertisement left.


Because silhouettes give a very clear image, they are often used in any field where the speedy identification of an object is necessary. Silhouettes have a many practical applications. They are used for traffic signs (see pic below). They are used to identify towns or countries with silhouettes of famous monuments or maps. They are used to identify natural objects such as trees, insects and dinosaurs. They are used in forensic science.[30]

Military usage

Silhouette of an aircraft

Silhouettes of ships, planes, tanks, and other military vehicles are used by soldiers and sailors for learning to identify different craft.


For interviews, some individuals choose to be videotaped in silhouette to mask their facial features and protect their anonymity, typically accompanied by a dubbed voice. This is done when the individuals may be endangered if it is known they were interviewed.

Sports shooting

Metallic silhouette is a popular outdoor shooting sport using either rifles or handguns.

See also

Famous silhouette images

Recent photographic images


  • Andersen, Jens. "Scissor Writing." Hans Christian Andersen – Paper Cuts. 2002. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
  • Coke, Desmond. The Art of Silhouette. Read Books, 2008. ISBN 1-4097-8364-2, ISBN 978-1-4097-8364-0
  • Ingersoll, Julia. Wayang Kulit: the Ancient Shadow Plays of Bali: Gamelan Tunas Mekar. 2003. Gamelan Tunas Mekar.
  • Jackson, Emily. The History of Silhouettes. 1911. General Books LLC edition 2010 ISBN 978-1-152-31181-7
  • Knipe, Penley. Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 44.3 (2002): 203–223. 2 October 2007.
  • McLynn, Frank. 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the world. Pimlico, 2005
  • Orr, Inge C. Puppet Theater in Asia. Asian Folklore Studies 33.1 (1974): 69–84. 2 October 2007. p. 12
  • Reiniger, Lotte: Homage to the Inventor of the Silhouette Film. Dir. Katja Raganelli. DVD. Milestone Film, 1999.
  • Roe, F. Gordon. Women in Profile: A Study in Silhouette. J. Baker 1970 ISBN 978-0-212-98364-3
  • Rutherford, Emma. Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow. Rizzoli International Publications 2009. ISBN 978-0-8478-3077-0
  • Stoichita, Victor. A Short History of the Shadow (Essays in Art & Culture). Reaktion Books 1997. ISBN 978-1-86189-000-9
  • Sedda, Julia. Silhouettes: The fashionable paper Portrait Miniature around 1800. Imhof Verlag 2014. ISBN 978-3-86568-969-6
  • Sedda, Julia. Reading Circles, Crafts, and Flower Arranging: Everyday Items in the Silhouettes of Luise Duttenhofer (1776-1829) Ashgate. ISBN 978-0-7546-6550-2


  1. ^ a b McClard, Peggy. "History of Silhouette". History of Silhouette. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  2. ^ [4] Printed advertisement on back of a miniature
  3. ^ museum "Silhouettes"
  4. ^ McLynn pp. 64–65
  5. ^ Teall, Gardner (Aug 1916). "Silhouettes Old and New". House & Garden 30: 20. 
  6. ^ There is no mention of de Silhouette making silhouettes in his earliest record in 1834 edition Biographie universelle ou dictionnaire historique contenant la nécrologie des hommes célèbres Volume 5. Furne, 1834. P. 2850
  7. ^ a b c d Custom Silhouette Pictures by Karl Johnson, accessed November 2, 2008
  8. ^ The family name Silhouette is a French form of a Basque surname, Ziloeta; Arnaud de Silhouette, Étienne's father, was from Biarritz in the French Basque Country; this surname, whose Standard Basque or Batua form is Zuloeta, contains the suffix -eta "abundance of" and zilo, Batua zulo, "hole".
  9. ^ R. M. Cook (1976). Review of John Boardman 'Athenian Black Figure Vases: A Handbook.' The Classical Review (New Series), 26, pp 253-253. doi:10.1017/S0009840X00248610.
  10. ^ Trendall, A. D. (Arthur Dale Trendall) & National Gallery of Victoria (1966). Greek vases in the Felton Collection. Oxford University Press, Melbourne ; New York
  11. ^ Science Daily, accessed November 2, 2008
  12. ^ Good design lies in the foundation, accessed 18 August 2009
  13. ^ a b Roving Artists Classic portraits
  14. ^ Lavater, accessed November 2, 2008
  15. ^ August Edward, accessed November 2, 2008
  16. ^ John Miers, accessed November 2, 2008, V&A biography
  17. ^ Cindi Harwood Rose is an American paper profilist, who uses only French archival black paper, and iris surgery scissors for creations in the historical silhouette fashion. She has cut paper profiles since the age of 16. Including in person celebrities such as Elvis, Sammy Davis Jr., Golda Mier, Liberace, Peter Fonda, Mickey Rooney, Peter Nero, President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, Tony Bennett, and Ashley Judd.Artist brings talent to The Woodlands shop, Houston Chronicle
  18. ^ The Silhouette Man, accessed November 2, 2008
  19. ^ Silhouette artist, accessed November 2, 2008
  20. ^ Traditional European paper cuts are different in this regard to traditional Oriental paper cuts which are often made of several layers of brightly coloured and patterned paper, and have many formal decorative elements such as flower petals.
  21. ^ Hans Christian Andersen's Paper Cuts in the Royal Library, accessed November 2, 2008
  22. ^ Mister Rob Ryan, accessed November 2, 2008
  23. ^ Robbin, T. (2008). Shadows of reality: the fourth dimension in relativity, cubism, and modern thought. The Mathematical Intelligencer, 30(1), 74-75.
  24. ^ Cabaret du Chat Noir (1881–1897) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 1992
  25. ^ Adams, Ansel & Baker, Robert (1995). The camera (1st pbk. ed). Little, Brown, Boston
  26. ^ Adams, Ansel & Baker, Robert (1981). The negative (1st ed). New York Graphic Society, Boston
  27. ^ Adams, Ansel & Baker, Robert (2003). The print. Little, Brown and Company, Boston
  28. ^ Evening, Martin (2015). Adobe Photoshop CC for photographers : a professional image editor's guide to the creative use of Photoshop for the Macintosh and PC (2nd edition). Burlington, MA, USA Focal Press
  29. ^ There are over 1,800,000 mentions of the word "silhouette" in conjunction with "fitness" online. There are many "Silhouette Fitness" studios and gymnasiums, e.g. in Halifax, in Bendigo, in Switzerland etc
  30. ^ Forensic entomology, accessed November 3, 2008

External links

  • GAP Guild of American Papercutters
  • "Silhouettes". Paintings & Drawings.  
  • Profile Likenesses of the Executive and Legislature of Georgia (Silhouette Book), by William H. Brown, 1855 from the collection of the Georgia Archives.
  • Kara Walker's A Horrible Beautiful Beast
  • Kara Walker's 2007 Whitney Exhibit
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