silhouette making, artist unknown

Tracing Shades


"Come round to the palace tonight,
and we'll trace your profile shade; What, what!"


Making "shades" or "profile shades" was a favorite nighttime amusement at the court of George III. The King loved to throw shade parties. The English called tracings of the outline of the sharp profile shadow cast by holding a candle near a person "shades," the French called these tracings silhouettes. The tracing of the shadow was then usually darkened with anything from lampblack to watercolor so that it more nearly resembled a shadow. The term "silhouette" derived from the name of Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), a Frenchman who was a finance minister to Louis XV. Etienne de Silhouette, though not the originator of this type of tracing, became synonymous with the art form because of his ability to create elaborate pieces.

Before the advent of cameras, a shade was a way of taking a person's likeness. Tracing the outline of a person's shadow was so easy that nearly anyone could participate and it was a fun group activity. There is a Zoffany painting in the Royal Collection showing Princess Amelia making a shade. We generally think of a silhouette as showing only the head and upper body as a bust does, but silhouettes could render an entire person from head to toe.

In 1775, Mrs. Samuel Harrington developed the scaling pantograph. This mechanical device could be used to enlarging or reduce the size of a drawing. A silhouette, normally made life size, could be reduced to a smaller size using the pantograph. These miniature silhouettes were extremely popular because they could be used in jewelry such as lockets and cameos. Decorating trends also influenced silhouettes. During the period when Wedgwood was marketing decorative copies of Sir William Hamilton's collection of Etruscan red-figure vases, it became popular to paint silhouettes in terra cotta colored gouache so that the finished product took on the appearance of a red figure on a black background.


Line drawing, Lady with Tiara, logo
Top of page
Georgian Index Home
Front Door
Card Party Graphic letter A, link to alphabetic site map
Site Map

©S.W. This site last updated Jan. 2005 by the webmaster