As the new movie Hitchcock has recently come into theaters, I am reminded of the silhouette so eloquently drawn at the beginning of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Before photography was a household staple, silhouettes provided an inexpensive way to record someone's likeness. And, as with Mr. Hitchcock, a shadow is often stunning in its ability to capture the likeness of a person or to tell a story.
The standard solid black figure on a light background was also an effective way to render drama and beauty in storytelling. The earliest cave paintings were renderings of a solid outline of a hand or animal, while the Egyptians used silhouetted images to write on the walls of their tombs as hieroglyphs. Ancient Greeks painted black-figured dancers, musicians and wrestlers on pottery. The eighteenth century made the practice of profile portraits common, with people sitting for their silhouette as they would later do with photographs. The term silhouette was coined after the brief tenure of an eighteenth century French Finance Minister, Etienne de Silhouette, who became known for being cheap.
The craft of paper cutting in Germany, called Scherenschnitte, used the practice silhouetting as a story form, rather than portraiture. In the nineteenth century, Hans Christian Anderson followed the tradition by making impromptu cuttings from a variety of paper materials during oral storytelling sessions.
Similarly, cutouts of figures, trees, animals, etc., were employed to create puppet theaters. In her gorgeously illustrated book, Silhouette, Emma Rutherford tells about the use of shadow in art and stories through many cultures. Some of the earliest uses of shadow theater were from Middle Eastern and Indonesian cultures where the figures represented the spirits of dead ancestors.
The cutouts were used in the first full-length animated film in 1926, Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed, a German tale adapted from The Arabian Nights. Later, the film noir genre transformed the practice by using backlit silhouetted figures and shadows for dramatic effect, as seen in Hitchcock’s films. It is an idea also used heavily in photography. In the early 20th century, Francis Bruguiere created stunning shadowy photographs using cut paper abstractions.
Furthermore, the shadow has been studied for perspective and in architectural drawing in order to transmit an accurate and believable reality of building and landscape. The darkness cast by buildings or faces is essential in the expression of time and realism. A cast shadow can tell us the time of day, while the silhouette of a bonnet and ringlets can imply the time period of the sitter. The coolness of the shade can tell of the time of year, while the word shade also suggests the time of a person’s afterlife.
The practice of paper cutting is still popular today. This craft employs a stealth hand with attention to detail to create intricate scenes cut from single sheets of paper. In the hands of contemporary artist Kara Walker, silhouetted vignettes tell stories, evoke a time period, and use the positive and negative space — the light and the dark areas, to set us in landscapes that often meet with controversy.
Have you made a silhouette of your likeness yet? It would make a great holiday gift.
For further exploration in the history, technique and art of silhouettes, shades and shadows, try the following titles:
History of Silhouettes
Shadow in Architecture and Perspective
Film and Photography