An object lesson from Matisse

Etienne de Silhouette was the kind of finance minister that people love to see hanged publicly. He was all about financial austerity. Not surprisingly, the cheapest way to get yourself a portrait (which was a paper cutout of a person’s profile in the 18th century) got his name.

For a couple of centuries, artists had been playing with silhouettes, making the misery method a rich art form as legit as painting or sculpture. And then came photography. And photographers.

This is when it got out of hand.

A bazillion of embracing couples against sunsets. Firemen against fires. Birds against the skies.

The art of silhouette has been devalued, but it still may come back. Silhouette is waiting for an innovator.

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Lanvin launched a silhouette line this year (it’s on me, and no, I didn’t buy it for myself) that makes the wearer a great target for street muggers. I mean if someone is wearing a pink hand from Lanvin at the front, there must be some fat wallet in the back pocket.

This silhouette sweater is an ideal outfit to wear back to front, if you want to ask someone for a favour. “Scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” becomes a pinky friendly message, and not an offer legally classified as corruption. It is important to stay away from areas where people love scratching each other’s backs for the sheer pleasure of it.

This glamorous hand reminded me of Matisse and his cutouts. Matisse discovered that a 2-dimensional silhouette in colour could be perceived as a 3-dimensional sculpture.  Look at this silhouette of a woman carrying an amphora (that’s clever for a jar) on her head.

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The rhyme of shapes makes it poetry, and there’s a bit of drama in it. Note the gap between the head and the jar, She rose her arms to steady the jar, but some fruit fell down. The only problem is that this silhouetted poem lacks volume. There’s no sense of distance, no depth.

It is not there, because I cropped it. Matisse makes the whole story 3-dimensional by a single vertical bar:


If there is a small god of silhouette art he probably is laughing right now at the small god of silhouette photography (I don’t doubt the existence of the latter).

I am getting over to the Silhouette Photo Challenge, to see if that sneering is justified. Quite possibly, it is not, and the sihouette god would be shamed.

P.S. You may wonder what is the role of the yellowish square at the background. Let me know why it is there, I’ve heard different opinions on that one. Let’s compare our impressions!



The rectangle creates a ship-like space for the girl who moves – despte the disturbance with the jar – with a cruiser’s grace towards the observer. Note the shape of her legs and feet: it is the bow of a ship.

The ship-like space protrudes into the bubble of the observer, and with the fruit falling out of HER space into the observer’s universe, the observer has to react.

It is not just a 3-D picture, it is a moving 3-D picture, and you don’t need special glasses to see it, just your imagination.


    1. I don’t write about something that someone has discovered before me ))
      The logic is simple: Matisse had a very calculating mind. He did a number of similar silhouettes before this one, and it is clear from the the way paper is cut here that he changed his “customary” approach in this one. So, he must have had something in mind when doing this. THen I just study the cut-out to find the most plausible explanation for his decisions. That’s the usual approach.

  1. How about a cupboard on top of which she is placing the amphora? Though I must say that even without the blue vertical line, the yellow rectangle and the increasing size of the fruit put the figure in perspective (= 3d space). We are in suspense!

  2. The square could possibly represent the ‘where’ – her environment. She ‘is’, there ‘are’ fruits, and all of this is ‘happening’.

    Or, you know, he liked how blue and yellow oppose each other, on the spur of the moment.

    1. You are right that the square represents her environment ) Please see the update to this post for graphic details, and thank you for coming back on this!

    1. I am sorry: the bubble is just a reflection of light from of the lamps…
      Please see the update to this post for my view on the role of the yellow square )

      1. You’re right, it does take a lot of imagination to see the ship (even the legs and feet) It gives a sense of the exotic in motion.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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