• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Birth of the Silhouette

I just happen to be reading an October 1923 issue of The Mentor, a magazine with a long pedigree for publishing stories that are somewhat relevant today. The lead piece in this issue (Vol. 11, No. 9) was "Cartoons and Cartoonists" by Charles Dana Gibson, a thrill to read by the eminence himself. But one of the off-leads is what really caught my attention: "The Silhouette and How it Got its Name."



Today, we don't think much about the popularity of silhouettes as a means of creating personal profile portraits before the invention of the camera. But they were essential as Instagrams in their day. And the history is fascinating.


Etienne de Silhouette was the French minister of Finance in 1759. He was known for trying to rid the government of financial corruption and the extravagances of the upper classes. Cutting cartoon critiques were aimed at M. Silhouette, and "silhouettes" became the slang-eponymous term for graphic attacks on the reformer-minister and also for any image that reduced something to its simplest form. When the financial crisis was over, the only thing that remained from the uproar against the minister was the word "silhouette," which was admitted to the French dictionary by the French Academy. In the U.S., the art of silhouette was called skyography and shadowphotography. Its practitioners were called profilists and scisorgraphists.


"The rage for the silhouette was not long in reaching this country," notes The Mentor.

The early attempts of our native artists were somewhat crude, but a few of them showed proficiency. The great master of the art arrived in New York in the forties. Auguste Edouart. … Charles X made him 'Silhouettist to the Royal Family of France,' and practically all the celebrities of that country and of England were immortalized by him. … He made cuttings under a tent. Men and women of fashion sought him out, and the likenesses he made are treasured by many families.
The physionotrace apparatus, akin to pantograph, invented by Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1783-84, facilitated the production of silhouette portraits by tracing (with an eyepiece) a profile to a needle moving on an engraving plate.

Silhouettes may seem very old-fashioned today, but tell that to Marcel Duchamp and Milton Glaser. It's worth recalling that silhouettes were a very popular mainstream graphic art. And with Kara Walker as an exemplar, it has socio-political relevance today.


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