A silhouette is a view of an object or scene consisting of the outline and a featureless interior, with the silhouetted object usually being black. The term was initially applied in the 18th century to portraits or other pictorial representations cut from thin black card.
The term has been extended to describe the sight or image of a person, object or scene that is backlit, and appears dark against a lighter background. Because a silhouette emphasises the outline, the word has also been used in the fields of fashion and fitness to describe the shape of a person’s body or the shape created by wearing clothing of a particular style or period.
Silhouette images may be created in any artistic media, but the tradition of cutting portraits from black card has continued into the 21st century.
The word silhouette is an eponym of Etienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister who in 1759 was forced by France’s severe credit crisis during the Seven Years War to impose severe economic demands upon the French people, particularly the wealthy. Because de Silhouette enjoyed making cut paper portraits, his name became synonymous with these portraits and with anything done or made cheaply. Prior to the advent of photography, silhouette profiles cut from black card were the cheapest way of recording a person’s appearance.