Silhouettes are often found in fin-de-siècle etchings, lithographs and woodcuts.
Modern printmakers drew inspiration for this two-dimensional aesthetic from Japanese woodblock prints.
Following the Japanese example, they stylised their figures into decorative abstractions by representing them as flat expanses of colour with heavy outlines.
The silhouette of Le Chat Noir
The ultimate use of the silhouette in printmaking is a solid area of black printer’s ink.
The best-known example is the black cat with fiercely glowing eyes, which Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen created as the icon of the artistic nightclub, Le Chat Noir.
The cat was inspired by the shadow theatre that Steinlen and other artists staged at the club.
Writing in 1896, the critic Louis Nazzy captured the poster’s impact: ‘The walls of Paris have been dignified by the presence of this haloed cat, hieratic, Byzantine, of enormous size, whose thin fantastic silhouette hangs high above the crowds in the streets.’
In contrast to Steinlen, who presented his black cat graphically against a light background, Symbolist artists often placed their silhouettes in a dark setting in order to evoke a certain mood.
Artists shrouded their figures in darkness to create a mysterious, hushed atmosphere, in the same way as the actors at the Symbolist Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, who performed behind a curtain which transformed them into indeterminate shadows.
Colta Feller Ives, The great Wave. The Influence of Japanese Woodcuts on French Prints, tent.cat., New York 1974
Ghislaine Wood, ‘The Age of Paper’ in Art Nouveau 1890-1914, tent.cat., London 2000, p.148-63
Le théâtre de l'Oeuvre 1893-1900: Naissance du théâtre moderne, tent.cat., Paris 2005