Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

Art and Architecture

Silhouettes, Shadows and Shades


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 Silhouette Artist., Digital ID 801278, New York Public LibraryThe 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.

 Shadow, Digital ID th-45024, New York Public LibrarySimilarly, 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.

Lib. 3 Cap. 2y3 Lam. 3. [Diagrams of shadows cast by geometric shapes.], Digital ID 1565283, New York Public LibraryFurthermore, 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.


So he asked the beasts in the sea., Digital ID 1704251, New York Public Library

For further exploration in the history, technique and art of silhouettes, shades and shadows, try the following titles:

History of Silhouettes

Contemporary Artists

Shadow in Architecture and Perspective

Paper cutting

Film and Photography



Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Silhouettes & shades

Great post, Jessica. Silhouette is one of the cheap tricks of theatrical lighting designers, especially for transitions between scenes. Nothing so evocative as dark figures moving against a light background (or cyc, in the theatre). I myself have created some pretty pictures. Also reminds me of the use of silhouettes in the musical *Ragtime* set at the dawn of the twentieth century. It is suggested in the play that the use of silhouettes gave rise to animation. Farfetched? Perhaps not.

flossie enyeart

How do I find a site that shows me a picture of a FLOSSIE ENYEART folkart picture i bought for 8 bucks at an antique store its only a 5 by 7

Flossie Enyeart

To begin looking for information on Flossie Enyeart you could try finding auction results for previous sales of her work. For more information on how to look for auction information visit the guide to Auction Sales Indexes available at: You might also try checking books on folk art. American folk art is available at call # 745.0973 at the Mid-Manhattan Library. You might also try looking at the collections of a folk art museum on line. The American Folk Art Museum is located at It may also be that information is not published on the artist if she was obscure or not well known. You may have found a unique piece of art that no one has written about and has not been reproduced anywhere.

shadows on shapes

I have been searching high and low for the publication that contains the image above (diagram of shadows cast on geometric shapes) with no luck. I was so happy to happen upon your page here and see it listed there. However, I looked in the two books you listed under further reading in architecture, and I could not find an image of this particular engraving anywhere. Do you know who the engraving is by, and or where I might find the publication in which it originally appeared? Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

shadows on shapes

Hi Liz, thanks for your comment. The image of the diagram of shadows cast on geometric shapes comes from a book called El Museo Pictorico y Escala Optica by Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco. It is available in the Art and Architecture Collection at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Luckily, the item has also been digitized, and if you click on the image above it should link you back to our Digital Collection image for the item.

Post new comment