The earliest part of the sixteenth century has been called the golden age of printing, the development of engraving lending a hand and the subsequent improvement in book illustration, with engraved or decorated title-pages as well as vignettes or headpieces or tailpieces in the text. As a “decorative design” they first appeared in 1751. The word was first borrowed from the diminutive of the Old French word vigne for vineyard and later became the French word vignette, both related to the root word vine. One who creates vignettes is called a vignettist and vignetting is the act of creating a border or background with gradual shading in a picture or photograph or to ornament with vignettes and lastly to depict in or as in a vignette. It is now, by extension, used for any miniature work, visual, verbal, or musical and a couple of synonyms for a vignette would be a thumb nail sketch and cameo.

At first a vignette in particular was a page with a picture on it. These were decorative borders of medieval manuscripts in the form of vine tendrils around the margins of a book page. Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger (1715-90) was prominent as an engraver of vignettes, frontispieces and scenes of court festivities executed from his own drawings. Later the small ornamental motifs appearing at the ends of the chapters of 18th-and 19th-century books were also called vignettes. The illustrative designs were also placed on or before a title page of books, at the end of a chapter and could also appear as any foliage embellishment around a capital letter in a manuscript .

Typically the engraving has a background that shades off gradually. In addition to manuscripts, in architecture a vignette is the running ornamentation of leaves and tendrils on buildings or sculptures. After the invention of the camera, sometime around 1853 the meaning of vignette as a border in a picture book transferred to a kind of small portrait photograph with indistinct edges that became trendy by the mid 19th century.

In the sense as a description for short literary sketch; a short descriptive essay or character sketch depicting something subtly or delicately probably came from the photographic sense and is first recorded in print 1880 which led to the sense of a vignette as a short scene or incident, like from a movie.

A vignette can also mean a charming, intimate scene or grouping and Two Tanka is a nice example of a vignette as a technical device in poetry. When it comes to painting an illustration of a vignette can be found in Eugéne Delacroix's The Death of Sardanapalus cultural historians Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner offer an explanation for the vignette's eager adoption of the by painters of the nineteenth century :

    The vignette, by its general appearance, presents itself both as a global metaphor for the world and as a fragment. Dense at its center, tenuous on the periphery, it seems to disappear into the page: this makes it a naive but powerful metaphor of the infinite, a symbol of the universe; at the same time, the vignette isfragmentary...incomplete, mostly dependent upon the text for it's meaning... The vignette launches a powerful attack on the definition of representation, a window on the world. The vignette is not a window because it has no limit, no frame. The image, defined from it's center rather than it's edges, emerges from the paper (or canvas) as an apparition or fantasy.

In the 1830s Joseph Mallord William Turner did many designs for book illustrations, among them delightful and extremely successful vignettes for Rogers's Italy (1830) and Poems (1834). He also illustrated works by Milton, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Campbell.

Sources:

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1991.

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Vi*gnette" (?; 277), n. [F. vignette, fr. vigne a vine. See Vine, and cf. Vinette.]

1. (Arch.)

A running ornament consisting of leaves and tendrils, used in Gothic architecture.

2.

A decorative design, originally representing vine branches or tendrils, at the head of a chapter, of a manuscript or printed book, or in a similar position; hence, by extension, any small picture in a book; hence, also, as such pictures are often without a definite bounding line, any picture, as an engraving, a photograph, or the like, which vanishes gradually at the edge.

 

© Webster 1913


Vi*gnette", v. t.

To make, as an engraving or a photograph, with a border or edge insensibly fading away.

 

© Webster 1913


Vi*gnette" (?), n.

A picture, illustration, or depiction in words, esp. one of a small or dainty kind.

 

© Webster 1913

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