Sunset, Christmas Beach, Herald Island, New Zealand. Image: Su Leslie

We all know what a silhouette is — but do you also know the origin of the word?

Silhouette originally referred to a style of  portraiture popular in the mid 18th century, that depicted a person — usually in profile — as a solid shape. When done well, the subjects of these simple representations were clearly recognizable.

So you might think that the word silhouette means something in relation to this art form. But you’d be wrong.

Étienne de Silhouette (1709 – 1767) was a French nobleman who briefly served as Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV. It is commonly believed that his attempts to bring the nation’s finances under control earned him a reputation for penny-pinching.

The term à la Silhouette came to mean things that were seen as cheap — like the shadow profiles which were much less expensive to produce than traditional painted or drawn portraits.

Over time, the word has taken on a much wider meaning and now refers to pretty much anything that is backlit and appears as a dark undifferentiated shape on a lighter background.

Lens-Artists’ Weekly Challenge | silhouettes

43 thoughts on “Silhouette

  1. Hi, Su. I’m so glad you included the history of silhouettes. I love that they were considered “cheap” art! Your shot of Christmas Beach is lovely. The colors of the sky are soft and yet vibrant. Great atmosphere/moods too in your couple shot and the barbed wire shot. Thanks for adding so much to our “photo conversation” this week!

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  2. Lovely images and thank for the history of the word. I am more fascinated with the name Christmas Beach. Only in Australia or NZ could that be found surely? And why? A beach to spend Christmas Day on perhaps? It certainly looks appealing.


  3. what a fascinating and unexpected explanation. Thank you for elaborating on this subject. I’m always astonished at the fact that so many things can be traced back to a French person….. Nowadays it’s sadly mostly for not very positive reasons. Let’s hope they will get forgotten in the history books! (Tomorrow, well it’s a Friday the 13th…..) Paris will be w/o any public transport at all – total mayhem and chaos is predicted….. A silhouette of dread!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I don’t want to brag (okay just a little 😉), but I did know about silhouettes and the monsieur behind it (I think my prof would have been deeply disappointed in me if I didn’t ). Your silhouettes are simply stunning and exquisite and there’s nothing cheap about. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

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