Etienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), an author and politician, became French controller general of finances in the mid-eighteenth century through the influence of Madame de Pompadour. Silhouette instituted strict reforms to help the failing economy. Everyone seemed delighted with his program, especially when he negotiated a large loan to adjust France’s fiscal position. At last someone was seizing control and turning the financial structure of France around.
The people’s enthusiasm turned when Silhouette ended the public funding of the king’s gambling losses, proposed a land tax on the estate of the nobles and the church, and ordered a cut in state pensions. Tax collectors could no longer retain for themselves a portion of their collections, and everyone, including nobility, became liable to taxation. And then he proposed to tax bachelors and luxury items. He also ordered the elimination of trouser cuffs, which created the phrase culottes de Silhouette.
This minister of finance was clearly out of sync with the ruling hierarchy. An uproar erupted that could be heard from palace to palace. The king quickly put a stop to Silhouette’s program, but the crafty finance minister then imposed a tax on «all articles of consumption». The euphoria that Silhouette had stirred in the populace a little while before was replaced with alarm. He became so exceedingly unpopular that he was forced to resign after having served for only eight months.
Etymologists believe that Silhouette’s tight-fisted, cost-cutting economic policies reminded people of shadow cut-outs, the cheapest form of art (in an art-conscious country), which they identified with his niggardliness. These profile cut-outs were long popular because they were much less expensive than a miniature painted by hand. All one needed to make them was a pair of scissors and some paper to fold. Many artists had made these black outlines on light paper, serving as modern snapshots would after the invention of photography. Some said that Silhouette made shadow portraits as a hobby and that his chateau at Brysur-Marne was decorated with them.