Papercutting has a long history dating back to ancient Chinese who used it to form stencils to decorate fine silks. Oriental shadow plays are dated back as early as the sixth century BC and reached an artistic high in India, China, Siam and Java in the 11th century and in the Middle East in the 13. century. Most likely, the technique found its way to Europe in the early 17th century through trade with Asia because the term “Chinese shadow” was used for the paper cuttings, this term was replaced by “silhouette” in France because a banker, Etienne de Silhouette, lent his name to the term; he was well known for thriftiness. As the minister for finance of Louis XV, he proposed that the king should commission only black-and-white shadow portraits instead of expensive oil pictures. In France it was originally a bourgeois art but soon became a favorite pasttime for everybody. Famous artists like Philipp Otto Runge, Adolph von Menzel, Fidus (Hugo von Höppener) and Goethe and later well known artists, such as Matisse and Picasso, created art using this technique.
In Germany and Switzerland, farmers picked up papercutting to pass their time in winter, often depicting stylized motifs around the farm and their lives using scissors, knifes and sometimes even sheep shears. The best known artist that made these traditional folk cuttings in Switzerland was the son of a farmer, Hans Jakob Hauswirth. Many modern papercutter still follow this traditional style.
In the 19th century the paper cuttings where often used to cut genre scenes that degenerated into kitsch. This might have diminished the popularity during the 20th century in some places.
In different countries paper cuttings are called:
- Dutch: Paperknipkunst
- France: Silhouette or decoupage
- Germany, Switzerland and Austria: Scherenschnitte
- Italy: Decoupage
- Japan: Kirie
- Mexico: Papel picado
- Polish: Wycinanki