The Return Of The Silhouette

Silhouettes by artist Sylvia Fellows.
Silhouettes are becoming popular again in the art world. The silhouettes pictured are by artist Sylvia Fellows.

It's an art form that has long existed in the shadows: The silhouette, a portrait fashioned from paper and a pair of scissors.

But these days, the silhouette is not just a static shape. You may know silhouettes from iPod commercials. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is featuring a collection of silhouettes, and they have been a fixture at Disneyland in California for 50 years.

With a sharp scissors and a sharp eye, artist Sylvia Fellows can create a likeness in less than two minutes.

"When I tell people I'm a silhouette artist, they say, 'A what?'" she told Sunday Morning co-anchor Charles Osgood. "And I have to explain it."

But you don't have to travel to New York or Disneyland. Kathryn Flocken sets up shop at colleges around the country.

"Every single face is different," Flocken said. "What I do is I look at the person as a series of shapes and I just start. Starting from the chest and going all the way up their face, and then come up and do the back of the hair."

"The vogue really developed in the mid-18th century," Wendy Reaves, curator of prints and drawings at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, said. "They were often called shades. They were often copied from shadows."

The Smithsonian has paper-cut portraits that date back to the days of Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Silhouettes were all the rage in the era before photography. Reaves said the name "silhouette" originated in France, after Etienne de Silhouette, the French finance minister.

"A very parsimonious finance minister, who was so unpopular for his cutting of budgets and pension that the term 'a la silhouette' came to mean anything on the cheap," Reaves said.

She says that since a likeness could be cut for a lot less than it cost to do an oil painting, these cameo-style portraits were accessible to everyone.

"A lot of these artists were itinerants," Reaves said. "And they would advertise when they came to town, set up their shop, and just about anybody could come through their doors."

Some artists used drafting instruments and traced profiles from shadows.

"It's really extraordinary how accurate these profiles are," Reaves said. "How specific the countenance is. You still really get a sense of the person and of the time that they lived in."