Word With a Past: Silhouette

I’m poking around in the long eighteenth century these days and stumbling across lots of surprising tidbits.

Take silhouettes. I had long known that charming likenesses cut from black cardstock became a popular and affordable alternative to oil portraits in the mid-eighteenth century. To the extent that I thought about the word at all, I assumed it was the name of a clever scissors-wielding artist who started the new fashion.

Wrong.* The art form, originally called “shades” or “profiles”, pre-dated the name.

Étienne de Silhouette was a French attorney with intellectual leanings and political ambitions. He wrote treatises on this and that, translated Alexander Pope into French, made friends with Madame Pompadour, and earned a name as a garçon fort savant** for a book he wrote on the English taxation system. That book would get him in trouble.

In 1759, halfway through the Seven Years War, he was appointed Controller-General of France. The war was expensive and Silhouette had the thankless job of balancing a budget with a shortfall of 217 million livres.*** To make things harder, more than sixty years of almost constant warfare, had left France with a shortage of metal money and a budget crippled by existing debt. Silhouette issued some long-term debts and cut some expenses, but he realized that the long term answer was raising tax income. He took the not-unreasonable position that the easiest people to raise money from were the people who had money–especially true in the Ancién Regime, where the nobility and the clergy were exempt from taxes. He took away their tax exemptions and cancelled a range of pensions, sinecures and handouts. With the wealthy and powerful already in an uproar, he then instituted new taxes on luxury goods, from jewelry and carriages to servants and windows. The marquise du Deffand, writing to Voltaire, complained “they are not taxing the air we breathe, but apart from that, I can’t think of anything that’s escaped.”

Less than nine months after his appointment, Silhouette was out on his ear and the term à la Silhouette was applied to anything cheap, including the profile portraits known as shades.

* In more ways than one, it turned out. Evidently there were two schools of silhouette artists, cutters and painters. The things you find out when you follow a fact down a rabbit hole.

** Bright kid

***Roughly 459 billion dollars today ****

****Very roughly, since I had to work from livres to francs, then calculate it forward to 1800 and convert it into dollars before I could plug it into this currency converter.

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