Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Where Did the Silhouette Get its Name?

May 8, 2016

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Long before selfies, the silhouette was a popular, cheap alternative to formal portraiture like oil paintings or marble busts. From the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, they were a common way to quickly capture a likeness, preserved today only as souvenirs from spots like Colonial Williamsburg. But did you ever wonder why they’re called silhouettes instead of “quaint black paper cut-outs often seen over Grandma’s mantle?” Other than that being a mouthful, silhouettes are named for Étienne de Silhouette, a mid-eighteenth century French economist. If this doesn’t make perfect sense, let me profile it for you. A sharp critic of the French aristocracy’s spendthrift ways, Silhouette’s conservative economic approach became synonymous with “cheap” in his day, making silhouette shorthand for chintzy things, including cut paper portraits. While this is the most plausible theory of the association, it might also be based on the brevity of Silhouette’s tenure (less than a year), reflecting the short sitting required for a silhouette. It’s also suspected that Silhouette himself was a weekend silhouette maker, so his hobby was named for him. In any case, that’s the outline of this quirky history.

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