Taxes Change the Name of an Art Form

Fiscal Cliff and the talk of tax changes dominate the news. But did you know that tax laws in France actually changed the name of a very popular art form now known as silhouettes?

In 1759, Etienne de Silhouette was appointed the Controller General of Finances of France. That country was having a major credit crisis due to the Seven Year War, and severe taxes were imposed on the citizenry, especially the wealthy. "Silhouette" came to mean a man reduced to his simplest state, there was nothing left of him, which is what happened to him after the imposed taxes by the General of Finances.

Today, "silhouette" commonly refers to an art form that is a simple outline or shadow (man in his simplest form). This art existed prior to the current term and was known as "shades". The most popular subjects were portraits.

Although still being created today, most prized silhouettes were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are several different techniques involved in creating a silhouette. One way was to cut a hole in the shape of the subject in a white piece of paper and then back it with a dark silk or dark paper. This would show through the hole to give the shadow effect. Another way was to cut the shadow shape out of black paper, usually free hand, and glue it to pale paper. One other technique was to paint the black shadow shape.

These charming scenes are still enjoyed today. Their simple lines and composition can fit well into contemporary decor while at the same time, giving us a glimpse into the lives of those in the past.

Melanie Smith

Seaside Art Gallery

Melanie is the co-owner of Seaside Art Gallery, Nags Head, NC which specializes in original fine art. The gallery was founded in 1961 by her parents and she has grown up in the world of art. She has organized numerous art shows, acted as an art judge and is an accredited fine art and animation art appraiser with the International Society of Appraisers.


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