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A traditional silhouette portrait of the late 18th century
A silhouette is a view of an object or scene consisting of the outline and a featureless interior, with the silhouetted object usually being black. The term was initially applied in the 18th century to portraits or other pictorial representations cut from thin black card.

The term has been extended to describe the sight or image of a person, object or scene that is backlit, and appears dark against a lighter background. 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.

Silhouette images may be created in any artistic media, but the tradition of cutting portraits from black card has continued into the 21st century.


The word silhouette is an eponym of Etienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who in 1759 was forced by France's severe credit crisis during the Seven Years War to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy. Because de Silhouette enjoyed making cut paper portraits, his name became synonymous with these portraits and with anything done or made cheaply. Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance.

The family name Silhouette is a French form of a Basque surname, Zuloeta; Arnaud de Silhouette, Etienne's father, was from Biarritzmarker in the French Basque Country; this surname, whose Standard Basque or Batua form is Zuloeta, contains the suffix -eta "abundance of" and zilho, Batua zulo, "hole" (possibly here meaning "cave of bats").

In art

A silhouette is a form of artwork. It is traditionally a human portrait in profile, in black.

Profile portraits

The advantage of the profile portrait is that, because it depends strongly upon the proportions and relationship of the bony structures of the face, forehead, nose and chin, the image is clear and simple, and deviates less from the appearance of the sitter with changes caused by age, weight and illness. 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 Lorenzo de Medici were depicted in profile.

Recent research at Stanford Universitymarker 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. This is an important concept for artists who design characters for visual media, because the silhouette is the most immediately recognisable and indentifiable shape of the character.

Traditional Silhouette portraiture

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. Some modern silhouette artists also make silhouettes portraits from photographs of people taken in profile.

The work of the physiognomist Johanna Caspar Lavater, who used silhouettes to analyse facial types, is thought to have promoted the art.One of the most famous silhouette artists of the 18th century, August Edward, 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. In England, the best known silhouette artist was John Miers, who travelled and worked in different cities, but had a studio on the Strandmarker in London.

In America, silhouettes were highly popular from about 1790 to 1840. The invention of the camera signaled the end of the silhouette as a widespread form of portraiture. 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 have websites advertising their services at weddings and other such functions. In England there is an active group of silhouette artists. In Australia, S. John Ross plied his scissors at agricultural shows for 60 years until his death in 2008. Other artists such as Douglas Carpenter produce silhouette images using pen and ink.

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. Among 19th century artists to work in this way was the author Hans Christian Anderson. The modern artist Robert Ryan creates intricate images by this technique, sometimes using them to produce silk-screen print.

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 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. Illustrators of the late 20th century to work in silhouette include Jan Pienkowski and Jan Ormerod. In the early 1970's, 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

Orginating in the orient with traditions such as the shadow theatres of Indonesiamarker, 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.


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. 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. Early iPod commercials portrayed silhouetted dancers wearing an iPod and earbuds.

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 photograph of 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 light might be natural, such as a sunset or an open doorway, a technique known as contre-jour or it might be contrived in a studio.

In graphic design

To silhouette is to separate (mask) a portion of an image so that it does not show. For instance, a background.

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 shape of the human body. 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.

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.

Military usage

Silhouette of an aircraft

Silhouettes of ships, planes, tanks, and other military vehicles are used by soldiers and sailors for to learn 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 individual 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

Image:JaneAustenSilhouette.png|A traditional silhouette image of Jane Austen, 18th centuryImage:Beethoven 16 Silhouette.jpg|Beethoven as a boy, finely cut with details of hair and clothing, 18th centuryImage:Mudflap girl.svg|The Mudflap girl is a common modern image on car mudflapsImage:Human evolution.svg|Silhouette image representing human evolutionImage:Japanese road sign(Crossing A).svg|Traffic signs often use silhouettes. This sign warns that the road crosses a railway line.Image:Flag of Cyprus.svg|The flag of Cyprusmarker shows a map of the country in silhouette form. Countries are often identified by silhouette maps.Image:Victoria silhouette.jpg|Queen Victoria in tiles on the London UndergroundImage:Statue of Liberty, Silhouette.jpg|A silhouette of the Statue of Libertymarker in New Yorkmarker. Famous monuments are often identified by their silhouettes.


  • McLynn, Frank. 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the world. Pimlico, 2005


  1. McLynn p.64-5
  2. Science Daily, accessed Nov 2 2008
  3. Good design lies in the foundation, accessed 18 Aug 2009
  4. Roving Artists Classic portraits
  5. Custom Silhouette Pictures by Karl Johnson, accessed Nove 2 2008
  6. Lavater, accessed Nov 2 2008
  7. August Edward, accessed Nov 2 2008
  8. John Miers, accessed Nov 2 2008
  9. The Silhouette Man, accessed Nov 2, 2008
  10. Silhouette artist, accessed Nov 2 2008
  11. 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.
  12. Hans Christian Anderson's Paper Cuts in the Royal Library, accessed Nov 2 2008
  13. Mister Rob Ryan, accessed Nov 2 2008
  14. Cabaret du Chat Noir (1881-1897) Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 1992
  15. There are over 1,800,000 mentions of the word "silhouette" in conjunction with "fitness" online. There are many "Silhouette Fitness" studios and gymnasiums, eg in Halifax, in Bendigo, in Switzerland etc
  16. Forensic entomology accessed Nov 3, 2008

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