Friday, December 14, 2012

Where does the word "silhouette" come from?

      Étienne de Silhouette (July 8, 1709 – 1767) was a French Controller-General of Finances under Louis XV.
      Sometimes said to be the next Niccolò Machiavelli, he was born in Limoges where his father Arnaud de Silhouette (from Biarritz, the modern Standard Basque form of the name would be Zuloeta) was sent. He studied finances and economics and spent a year in London learning from the economy of Britain.
Children learning to draw silhouettes in the 1800s
      He translated into French several works by Alexander Pope, Henry Bolingbroke, William Warburton's The Alliance between Church and State, (1736) as Dissertations sur l'Union de la Religion, de la Morale, et de la Politique (1742) and Baltasar Gracián's El político. The party of the Prince of Condé used his translations from English authors to criticize him but the protection of Madame Pompadour awarded him the position of Controller-General in 4 March 1759, the most extensive of all the administrative positions and a very unstable one. His task was to curb the running deficit and strengthen the finances for the Seven Years' War against Britain (1754–1763). Public opinion preferred his 72-million-livres public loan to the ferme générale, an outsourced tax collection system. He also reduced spending by the royal house and revised pensions. To favour free trade, he eliminated some taxes and established new ones operating on a unified French market.
      De Silhouette forecasted a bleak budget for 1760: income of 286 million livres compared to expenses of 503 million livres, including at least 94 million in debt service. In an attempt to restore the kingdom's finances by the English method of taxing the rich and privileged (nobility and church were exempt from taxes in the Ancien Régime). de Silhouette devised the "general subvention," i.e., taxes on external signs of wealth (doors and windows, farms, luxury goods, servants, profits). On 26 October, he took the war measure of ordering the melting down of goldware and silverware. He was criticized by the nobility including Voltaire, who thought his measures, though theoretically beneficial, were not suitable for war time and the French political situation.
      On 20 November 1759, after eight months in the position, he left the court and retired to a chateau at Bry-sur-Marne, where he set about improving it. After his death in 1767, his nephew and heir Clément de Laage completed that work.
      Étienne de Silhouette's short tenure as finance chief caused him to become an object of ridicule and his penny-pinching manner led the term à la Silhouette to be applied to things perceived as cheap.
      During this period an art form of growing popularity was a shadow profile cut from black paper. It provided a simple and inexpensive alternative for those who could not afford more decorative and expensive forms of portraiture, such as painting or sculpture. Those who considered it cheap attached the word "silhouette" to it. The name stuck and so today we know it as a silhouette.

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