Great French Lives: Etienne de Silhouette


posted by Simon Kemp

A while back, we learned that Joseph-Ignace de Guillotin did not invent the guillotine. Today it’s time to discover that Etienne de Silhouette didn’t invent the silhouette, either.

The story is quite a mysterious one, in fact.  The word silhouette, in French and English, originally referred to cut-out profile portraits in black paper, resembling a shadow of the sitter. Like this one, for instance:


If you go to the Place du Tertre in the Montmartre district of Paris, you’ll probably still get someone try to persuade you to get one of yourself.


The portraits, and the word ‘silhouette’, originated in the eighteenth century. It’s known that the word is derived from the name of Louis XV’s finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette, but it’s not exactly clear why.

Etienne de Silhouette was born in Limoges in 1709. He was to rise to the rank of contrôleur général des finances at the court of King Louis by the age of fifty, thanks to the patronage of the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. He was appointed to the post in March 1759, but didn’t even make it to the end of the year. Attempting to get state finances into better shape, he advocated cutting spending, getting rid of loopholes that allowed rich state officials to avoid paying tax, and imposing a touch of austerity on the lavish spending of the royal court. This last proposal in particular didn’t go down too well, and he was booted out of office in November of that year, retiring from public life to live on his country estate for the rest of his days.

Silhouette’s attempted reforms led his enemies to call him a skinflint, and his name was soon associated with meanness and frugality. Apparently, breeches without money-pockets were known as ‘culottes à la Silhouette’ at the time. It’s been claimed that this is the reason Silhouette gave his name to the shadow-portraits, either because they were a ‘portrait-on-the-cheap’, or because they thinned people down to a shadow of themselves. That may just be part of the general slander Silhouette suffered after his short-lived stint in control of the nation’s purse strings. Other accounts suggest he was a genuine enthusiast for shadow-portraits, and would sit guests to his home in front of a blank canvas, before using a special lamp to project their shadow onto it for him to draw around.


Either way, whether he was an enthusiast for the craft or a victim of some very roundabout insult, it’s unlikely that Silhouette was the inventor of the technique. For starters, shadow puppets have been in use in south-east Asia for at least a thousand years, and it’s known that these ‘ombres chinoises’ reached Europe at around the time we’re talking about, where they became generally popular. As with Guillotin, it seems, the famous name gets the credit, and the real inventor, whoever they may have been, is lost in the shadows.


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