A Shadow Menagerie

Some fun with silhouettes I've been working on for a new project called The Grunion, more to come, and soon I hope…

In the summer of 1759, French Controller-General of Finances, Étienne de Silhouette, was faced with the grave task of stabilizing the French economy. Grave, both in the sense that the Seven Years’ War with England and its allies (now in its 3rd year) had required unprecedented outlays from the French treasury to finance the purchase of desperately needed epaulets for King Louis XV's military uniform, and in the sense that the King would—as French tradition demanded—likely have Étienne executed should he fail to improve economic conditions to a stable state.

Although Étienne enacted a number of long overdue tax and financial reforms, his early efforts were stanched by a series of inauspicious coincidental events, leading Étienne to the conclusion that his work was under attack through dark sorcery, most likely from agents of the Portugueese Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo's, known for his employ of court hypnotists.

Via an anonymous tip, Étienne learned of a sinister cabal who had infiltrated the Académie des Beaux-Arts, placing its members as high-ranking instructors, who in turn popularized the use of new foreign-origin pigments. Chief among these was the liberal use of caput mortuum or “Mummy Brown”, a dull brown pigment derived from the wrappings of Egyptyian mummies. By lacing paintings with this compound, agents could then cause figures appearing in the paintings to whisper short messages, the idea being that wealthy aristocrats might hang the paintings in their bedrooms as decorations, and then be so influenced as they sleep.

Thanks to Étienne's new tax policies, the French aristocracy was now largely isolated from day-to-day economic affairs, however, with growing European trade the raw materials of paints and canvas were now more readily available, enabling members of a growing middle class to afford works of art for the first time—thus threatening to extend the cabal's influence even further.

To address this issue, the famously pecuniary Étienne set about popularizing the use of black cut-paper portraiture, a favorite craft activity of his youth, as a more economical alternative to to traditional painted portraits. Through an aggressive advertising campaign, so called “Silhouette” portraits soon became quite chic among the French populace. Popular wisdom held that having one's silhouette cut on a regular basis, such as on a birthday or a regular feast day, would provide a record allowing the subject to select their preferred age at which to live out their afterlife in Heaven.

Étienne's efforts eventually proved successful, reforming and strengthening the French economy. Unfortunately for Étienne however, many of the new practices and traditions that developed in parallel with silhouette portraits met with the King's displeasure. The situation came to a head in 1761 when a number of smaller rural municipalities, inspired to question the need for an aristocracy now that art was accessible to the masses, produced local coinage with special slots allowing local residents to insert their own silhouette portraits over that of the sovereign. When news of this practice reached the palace at Versailles, French philosopher and noted statesman Voltaire reported that King Louis XV “…sent forth servants to the count of 22 with strict instructions to return, each with a separate piece of Étienne's anatomy, and each on a separate day”.

Despite his gruesome demise, Étienne's eponymous legacy lives on as a popular art form, a common device in the visual arts, and as a guard against the undue influence or possible enchantment of other forms of pictorial art.