For being France’s Controller General of Finances under the luxuriant reign of Louis XV, Etienne de Silhouette was a rather stingy fellow. After stepping down from his governmental job after eight short months, he purportedly decorated his farmhouse with black paper cut-outs to save on expense. Before his name coined the style of one-dimensional self-portraits in the 19th century, however, à la silhouette was a slam against his frugal ways, one of which suggested the country alleviate their massive debt by taxing the tax exempt First and Second Estates.
Although silhouettes had been around for a long time, usually called shade or shadow portraits, it was their more elegant cousin, the miniature portrait, who was getting all the attention. Around mid 18th century, the expense of miniature portraits continued to prove prohibitive for all but the wealthiest and shade portraits, where one’s profile was limned from their shadow, delighted the masses. Since all one required was light shone past a profile, the shadow on a wall replicated by hand, this new art was easy to acquire. Among both fashionable and common, shade parties became de rigeur and soon almost everyone was distributing their unique likeness.
Machine on which to draw silhouettes
From Johann Kasper Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy, 1792
As with anything else, embellishments appeared once the art was in possession of the masses. Aristocrats would affix precious gemstones around the frame and have the silhouette painted on glass, ivory, or plaster instead of plain paper. The technique also evolved from the natural silhouette, shaded in unrelieved black, to silhouettes with whimsical details and variegated shading. Men’s silhouettes tended to be simpler, but for the ladies, a lace bertha might be added to a collar, a magnificent coiffure to frame her face. After centuries rule of designings dinner services with their crests and custom patterns, royalty even started slapping their silhouettes onto plates so their respective guests could always be reminded of with whom they were dining (as if that fact could be easily forgotten!).
If you’re interested in individual silhouette artists, check out Shady Ladies: Female Silhouette artists of the 18th Century where you can read about Mrs. Isabella Beetham, the most prolific female artist in her day. John Miers, as her male counterpart, was considered the finest 18th century silhouette artist.