Long before photography, Silhouette Art was a form of portraiture, accomplished in a variety of ways by silhouette artists, from painting what appears in a shadow to clipping by hand and by eye. The latter skill is just one version of paper cutting, an ancient tradition found in cultures from Asia to Europe.
The name Silhouette is from Etienne de Silhouette, an eighteenth century French Minister of Finance to Louis XV. He hand cut out pensions and luxuries thus the term “cut out” or “minimal.“ Mr. Silhouette lasted a mere eight months at his post due to his “conservatism,“ and people would often dress entirely in black to protest his budget cuts. It is said that Silhouette would while away the hours in his office making these profile “shades” of the various heads of state, and place them on the mantle in his office for people to see.
Silhouette “shades” were the way to have a profile made without having to have an expensive portrait commissioned, and cost about a penny a piece. They were referred to as the “poor man’s portrait.”
It is likely that a man named August Edouart made the word “silhouette” popular when he came to England in 1829 from France. Edouart wanted to create the impression of something different, so he strove to distinguish his work from the popular “shade” which was often traced by machine, a method he found crude and without merit.
From its heyday in the 18th century, the practice is waning, in part because there are only a few dozen silhouette artists of varying technical ability in the world.