Étienne de Silhouette: The History of the Silhouette

Silhouettes acquired their name from a French minister of finance under Louis XV named Étienne de Silhouette. He had studied finance and economics and had spent a year in London learning about the British economy. According to one nineteenth century reporter, de Silhouette “introduced several parsimonious fashions during his administration a la Silhouette,”[1] and among these parsimonious fashions was severe taxes.

Silhouettes - an example of one

Example of a Silhouette. Public domain.

It began in 1760 when Étienne de Silhouette forecast a bleak budget and attempted to restore the finances of the kingdom using the English method of taxing the rich and privileged. He devised what was called “general subvention,” or in other words, any signs of external wealth (luxury goods, servants, etc.) were taxed. He went further when he became melting down gold and silver and criticized the nobility (including Voltaire) who objected to his extreme taxation measures.

One newspaper referred to de Silhouette’s penny-pinching ways in the following verse in 1760:

  • A Council was lately assembled at Marli,
  • Of war and of peace to debate and to parley;
  • The nymph Pompadour took the uppermost seat,
  • And Lewis the gentle sat down her feet.
  • There, was hoary Belleisle, grave, solemn, and flow,
  • Soubize the polite, and pert Richlieu the beau;
  • Silhouette, in resources of cash a dear jewel.
  • The wary Contades, the choleric Choiseuil
  • In order to season this politic olio.
  • They added the pepper of hot headed
  • Old Nestor declared for congress and peace.
  • And the hint was espous’d by Contades and Soubize,
  • Silhouette rankly own’d his budget exhausted:
  • But Choiseuil still rav’d, and Richlieu still boasted.
  • Said Lewis, lords we would willingly learn,
  • What funds you can fix, or what prospects discern
  • For maintaining or bringing this war to conclusion,
  • So productive of misery shame and confusion.
  • Our commerce is ruin’d, our money flown;
  • Our armies are routed; our settlements gone.
  • Our fleets have sustained a most terrible blow.
  • In the rout of Conflans, and the fate of Thurot:
  • Our troops will no longer our leaders obey.
  • When divested of clothing, provision, and pay;
  • What motive, then say, will their courage excite,
  • Against those who have beat them so often, to fight?’
  • “A motive (cry’d Broglio) I’d cherish with care:
  • Starv’d, naked, and beaten, they’ll fight in despair.”[2]

Because of de Silhouette’s skinflint ways, his name began to be used by the public in a derogatory fashion to describe anything cheap or frugal. However, exactly how de Silhouette’s name became associated with silhouettes appears to murky. There are at least three versions as to how it happened.

Étienne de Silhouette - silhouette

Example of a silhouette with a family all in a row. Public domain.

In the mid-1700s, many people could not afford to pay a portrait artist to paint their likeness, but they could afford shadow portraits (silhouettes). Shadow portraits had originated long ago and were tied to the origins of art in early mythology. Shadow portraits were also easy and cheap to create. They usually consisted of a person’s profile cut from black cardboard or paper and pasted on a white background.

This inexpensive alternative to a painted portrait became increasingly popular in the mid-1700s, and even more so after Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, fell in love with them. In fact, she loved shadow portraits so much she made them popular resulting in them being called for a time à la Pompadour. However, because the portraits were also cheap, they were derogatorily referred to as à la silhouettes in reference to Étienne de Silhouette and his frugal ways.

The second version about how de Silhouette’s name became attached to shadow portraits again relies on his name being used in a derogatory fashion. In this version, Frenchmen were wearing breeches without pockets called “des culottes à la Silhouette.”[3] Because the breeches had no pockets, they thinned a person down and made a person a shadow of their former selves, and, thus, the portraits became linked to Étienne de Silhouette.

A third version claims that de Silhouette spent his free time creating shadow-portraits. Supposedly, when guests visited his home, he would place them in front a blank canvas and use a special light to cast a shadow on the person. From this shadow he then created their shadow portrait and his portraits became known as “silhouettes.”

How the name silhouette became attached to shadow portraits may not be as important as what propelled the art form into popularity throughout the world. The person credited for accomplishing this is claimed to be Johann Kaspar (or Caspar) Lavater. He was interested in physiognomy and introduced the idea that physiognomy was related to specific character traits of individuals, rather than general types. He also published a book between 1775 and 1778 that became popular in France, Germany, and England, and his ideas promoted people’s interest in shadow portraits.

Soon after Lavater’s ideas began to spread, a physionotrace apparatus was invented by Frenchman Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1783-1784. The apparatus facilitated the production of silhouettes by transmitting a subject’s profile to an engraving plate, from which multiple portrait copies could be printed. One magazine noted of these likenesses:

“Every town, and almost every village, was periodically visited by the caravan-housed professor, who for sixpence would supply a likeness by the royal patent machine and throw in a frame. For an increased fee he would cut papa, mamma, and the whole tribute of little ones, whose likenesses would be stuck on to a sheet of white cardboard in a mathematically straight row, the sizes gradually diminishing until the vanishing point was reached by baby, or perhaps a little dog. Cats when cut had a knack of coming out uncommonly like goats or donkeys, and for this reason were tabooed in family groups. Single portraits generally stopped short at the waist. Hands, when attempted by the unskilled, could not fail to resemble glove-stretchers, and for this reason were kept discreetly out of sight.[4]

Étienne de Silhouette - apparatus for creating silhouette

An apparatus for creating silhouettes. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Lavater and Chrétien’s ideas, the term silhouette still took some forty years before it came into common use and was formally used to refer to shadow portraits. When it was formalized, it was because of a French-born portrait artist who specialized in creating silhouettes. His name was Auguste Edouart, and he travelled throughout England, Scotland, and the United States producing silhouettes.

Étienne de Silhouette - silhouettes

Silhouettes of the Count and Countess de Bouillé (left) and the Countess and Count de Brissac (right) by August Edouart. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Edouart and others became well-known for silhouettes because the silhouette producing machines did not create silhouettes as good as those produced by hand.* In addition, Edouart began to specialize in the art of silhouettes and became so adept at creating them, that by 1825, he was creating full-length profile likenesses. He also he wrote a book in 1835 titled “A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses.” Moreover, over the course of his lifetime, Edouart supposedly created an astonishing 85,000 silhouettes.

As with all fads, the silhouette eventually became passé. By the twentieth century, the camera pioneered by George Eastman in 1888 was being manufactured and sold for a relatively low price. The low price and ease allowed many people to obtain a portrait of themselves. The twentieth century also saw fewer people willing to sit for silhouettes and there were also fewer silhouette artists who produced quality silhouettes. However, the art of the silhouette never completely died out because today, people can still find quality silhouette artists on the web practicing their craft from long ago.

*Madame Tussaud‘s son Joseph produced machine silhouettes.


  • [1] North Devon Journal, November 17, 1892, p. 7.
  • [2] Aberdeen Press and Journal, “The Junto,” June 2, 1760, p. 2.
  • [3] Barthélemy-François-Joseph Mouffle d’Angerville, Vie privée de Louis XV (London: Lyton, 1788), p. 182.
  • [4] The English Illustrated Magazine v. 7 (London: Macmillian and Co., 1890), p. 749.

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