Silhouette  

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The Invention of the Art of Drawing (1791) by Joseph-Benoît Suvée, in the collection of the Groeningemuseum, Bruges.
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The Invention of the Art of Drawing (1791) by Joseph-Benoît Suvée, in the collection of the Groeningemuseum, Bruges.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single colour, 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, but the term normally describes 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", 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. 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.

In art

The silhouette is closely tied in mythology with the origins of art. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (circa 77–79AD) 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.”

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Silhouette" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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