Long before Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), whose name was appropriated for black cut-out images, collectors were snipping the outlines of drawings. The father of all old master drawing collectors, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), engaged in what nowadays would be called vandalism. The Filippino Lippi (c. 1457-1504) drawing of an angel below was cut out from a drawing and pasted on one of the few intact pages from his Libro de’ Disegni (8+ albums).
The formatting of the album pages is so architectural, that a better word for their being taken apart might be dismantling or razing. The angel is used, along with a pair of snipped angels at the right, to create a symmetrical confection, framing the central child. It also has to be said that it is a magnificent sheet, that Vasari mostly left his drawings intact, and he did much more to conserve drawings than not.
Another drawing by Filippino Lippi, said to be from Vasari’s Libro (the ornament looks later to me), shows a male figure, carefully cut along the contour. I’m posting this drawing because the silhouetting makes the reading of the drawing ambiguous.
There are those that see it as a man hanged upside by his right foot, as in tortured, and those who see it as a performer. The facial expression could be seen as a grimace of pain or the exaggerated mask of a performer. Its being silhouetted, and taken from its context, makes it difficult to decide for certain.
In Sweden’s National Museum, there are a group of early drawings created in France which have been silhouetted. The Frog Man, probably a study for a performance or spectacle costume, below, is by Niccolò dell’Abbate (c. 1509-71 c.).
The silhouetting treatment was also used on drawings by Antoine Caron (c. 1527-99), Jacques Bellange (active c. 1600-16), and Georges Lallemand (1575-1636). The drawings have the same provenance, Prince Victor-Amédée de Carignan (1680-1741) to Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770). I haven’t read an explanation of why this was done, but it probably has to do with wanting to see these drawings as a group, to create a visual link between the works.
Drawings weren’t the only snipped works. Medieval manuscripts have been clipped, even for making lampshades. Starting in the early 18th century prints were trimmed, glued to furniture and decorative objects, then varnished, creating the look of lacquered items. Sometimes the prints were made on purpose to be cut out for decorative projects. The descriptive word decoupage was the name for it and the leisure class took it up as a pass time–crafting for fun. The following is from an entertaining article by D.O. Kisluk-Grosheide of the Metropolitan Museum, where she quotes Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733), a letter-writer whose letters were edited by Voltaire, on decoupage:
“We are here in the height of a new passion for cutting up coloured engravings…Everyone, great and small, is snipping away. These cuttings are pasted on sheets of cardboard and then varnished. They are made into wall panels, screens, and fire boards. There are books and engravings costing up to 200 livres; women are mad enough to cut up engravings worth 100 livres apiece. If this fashion continues, they will cut up Raphaels!”
Etienne de Silhouette, the budget-minded Controller General of France’s Finances (1759) was known for cost cutting, to the point of calling for pocketless trousers. His name became associated with frugality and “à la silhouette” meant something that was no-frills. The cut-outs, generally portraits, were first known as “portraits à la silhouette,” then simply as silhouetttes. The big difference is that blank paper was used. This example just below is by an anonymous cutter and is of Gerard van Swieten (1700-72), the personal doctor of Maria Theresa (1717-80), an important figure in developing the University of Vienna’s Medical School and a debunker of belief in vampires.
It wasn’t just the inexpensiveness that made silhouettes attractive. The raison d’être was that people in the 18th and 19th centuries had a great fascination with profiles, believing that a profile was a window to character. In reading period novels, profiles come right after income prospects in importance when choosing a marriage partner.
While most silhouettes are portrait profiles, if I were to think of two of the most well known artists engaged in silhouetting, they would be Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) and the contemporary Kara Walker. Runge, although he did portraits and genre scenes, he is best known for silhouettes of flowers, see below, and Kara Walker (born 1969) for scenes of injustice. Here is a link to Walker’s gallery.