Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow

Bear with me and my book reviews. You know that the Fall is like Christmas to those of us who love design books!

One of the more intriguing books to come out this season is
Silhouette: The Art of the Shadowby art historian Emma Rutherford. I've long been drawn to these graphic visages, and I'm not alone. Think of Lulu Guinness whose logo includes a silhouette (in fact, Guinness wrote the forward to the book), or Diamond Baratta who introduced a great silhouette fabric a few years ago.

Rutherford traces the history of the silhouette all the way back to Etruscan vases that are considered to be the precursors to this graphic art form. The book explores the silhouette's popularity in 18th c. France and of course the Victorian age (those Victorians were awfully crazy for silhouettes...), and many 20th c. examples are included as well, most notably the provocative work of artist Kara Walker. Rutherford reminds the reader that silhouettes have long been created in many forms besides paper cutouts- paintings and carved and molded pieces were also favorite mediums for the silhouette.

After reading this book, I find that I now have far more of an appreciation for silhouettes; to me, they're no longer just a Victorian novelty. Is it fine art? Well, no, not really, but to dismiss silhouettes as mere decorative trifles would be quite a shame.

Roger Palmer, Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh (c. 1705–1785), life-size head, hollow-cut on blue paper, 9-3/5 inches high, Private Collection

A Jockey at Newmarket, Pringle (dated 1827), painted and bronzed on card, 3-1/2 inches high. Lidstone Collection.

The Hunt, Master Barber, aged 9 (fl. c. 1851), cut-out paper, 5 inches high, Ian Cross Collection.

(All images ©Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow by Emma Rutherford, Rizzoli New York, 2007)


  1. Absolutely fantastic post; I have a serious weakness for silhouettes. Years ago my former spouse and I had silhouettes cut. It was a fun commission. Now I would be afraid to be thus depicted in profile (incipient double chin). Now my idea of great silhouettes today are the disturbing ones by artist Kara Walker.

  2. Aesthete- My sister recently painted silhouettes of the two of us for the mural in my living room. Thank God she was kind in her rendering of my profile! I'll have to dig up my silhouette that I made in kindergarten.

  3. The renaissance of the silhouette. Yes I love them and thanks for your post, it is something I think I'm going to have to explore.

  4. There is a wonderful mystery behind silhouette's. I have a folder of them that I found in a old paper lot I bought many years ago. They are on my list to use, I think I will make fabulous shades with them. This book is on my holiday list.

  5. Great post. For some great antiquarian lithographic silhouette prints, there is William Brown's book "The Portrait Gallery of Distinguished American Citizens." Prints available are at

  6. I have a piece of wallpaper that we found in our very old farmhouse that looks similar to the last example (the Hunt) and I am DESPERATE to find info on it. I have never seen it anywhere until I went to a wedding at a mansion built in 1790 and they had done some demo in a room and found the EXACT same paper inside their walls! It's a little demonic (horned beasts, women with butcher knives to men's throats... real ugly stuff) but I was wondering if you knew of this at all? I can send you a picture of it... I can't find ANYTHING similar online no matter how much I google it! you can contact me at

  7. I am looking for a someone to do a silhouette from a photo. I have one of two of my children, and would like a matching one of my oldest child. Do you know of someone who might be able to do this? Thank you so much! Ellie