Silhouettes have been around since the 18th century. A silhouette portrait can be painted or drawn. However, the traditional method of creating silhouette portraits is to cut them from lightweight black cardboard, and mount them on a pale (usually white) background. This was the work of specialist artists, often working out of booths at fairs or markets. A traditional silhouette portrait artist would cut the likeness of a person, freehand, within a few minutes. Some modern silhouette artists also make silhouettes portraits from photographs of people taken in profile.
The work of the physiognomist Johanna Caspar Lavater, who used silhouettes to analyse facial types, is thought to have promoted the art. One of the most famous silhouette artists of the 18th century, August Edouart, cut thousands of portraits in duplicate. His subjects included French and British nobility and US presidents. Much of his personal collection was lost in a shipwreck. In England, the best known silhouette artist was John Miers, who travelled and worked in different cities, but had a studio on the Strand in London.
In America, silhouettes were highly popular from about 1790 to 1840. The invention of the camera signaled the end of the silhouette as a widespread form of portraiture. The skill was not lost, and travelling silhouette artists continued to work at state fairs into the 20th century. The popularity of the silhouette portrait is being reborn in a new generation of people who appreciate the silhouette as a nostalgic way of capturing a significant occasion. In the United States silhouette artists have websites advertising their services at weddings and other such functions.
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