February 05, 2014

À la silhouette

Today the word silhouette indicates an outline or a general shape of something. It also denotes an image of a person or object represented as a solid shape of colour, usually black. This term originates from 18th century France.

Jane Austen silhouette
Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67) was the protégé of Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of Louis XV. Pompadour managed to secure Silhouette’s appointment as Controller-General, essentially the Finance Minister of France, in 1759. Due to the ravages of the Seven Years War (1756-63), Silhouette was tasked with securing funds to rebuild the French Army. His plan involved the implementation of new taxes on external signs of wealth, such as doors and windows, servants and luxury goods. Of course, the nobility and the church were exempt from the new taxes. Unfortunately, Silhouette’s new taxes were not popular with the wealthy of France and he was soon forced into retirement within months.

After this incident, anything done on the cheap was said in France to be à la silhouette. This included the new popular black-profile portraits that were becoming very popular in France. Eventually these portraits became popular across Europe, and during the Napoleonic Wars, many people had this type of portraits in their homes. In addition, many officers carried pictures of their loved ones while away from home.  

As for Silhouette, he spent his retirement in a chateau working on its improvement. Today his name is synonymous with profile portraits, which is better than being known as cheap.

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