Auguste Edouart: 19th Century Silhouette Artist Extraordinaire

Frenchman Auguste Edouart was one of the most popular silhouette artists of the 19th century. He supposedly got his start one night while visiting a family. They showed him some silhouettes produced by a machine and he condemned them. The family challenged him to do better, and he took up the challenge “seized upon a pair of scissors and the cover of a letter, and putting the father in position, ‘in an instant … produced a likeness.’”[1] He also did the mother’s likeness, and his natural skills were so outstanding, his career as a silhouette artist began that very night.

Auguste Edouart - his self-created likeness

Silhouette of Auguste Edouart by himself. Public domain.

Edouart was born in Dunkerque in 1789 and left France in 1814 heading for England. Prior to his career as a silhouette artist, he supported himself and his family in what he called mosaic hair work that involved creating images from various shades of hair. The work was painstakingly slow and tedious, and according to one person when describing a mosaic hair work man-of-war:

“This performance in human hair imitates the finest true engraving; the curious may perceive, with the help of a magnifying glass, the cordage and men on board. This work has taken at least twelve months in its execution.”[2]

Auguste Edouart - example of a silhouette family by him.

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

Auguste Edouart soon discovered that silhouettes were much quicker to produce than mosaic hair work. They were likely more profitable too. Initially, his silhouettes were cut from paper and blackened by soot from a candle snuffer, but within a year, he was using prepared black paper and a card stock specifically meant for silhouettes. He also quickly demonstrated that he possessed an unusual gifted and affinity for producing silhouettes. Perhaps, it was because of all the time he spent working on the tedious and tiny mosaic hair works that resulted in techniques that set him apart when it came to silhouettes. Whatever it was, his abilities were noted by one person who saw Auguste Edouart in action and wrote:

“The likenesses may fairly be regarded as the best ever produced by means of a pair of scissors and a piece of paper. His nimbleness was such that he even made many satisfactory portraits from description. A silhouette would be pointed out in his room as somewhat resembling the person whose likeness was required, and from a few hints as to the nose being too long, the chin too pointed, or what not, he would in a very few minutes produce a profile that was smilingly paid for — not a bad test of success.”[3]

His first silhouette patron was the portly Bishop of Bangor. The bishop was so impressed by Edouart’s skills he ordered 40 copies even though Edouart charged 5 shillings for each silhouette versus the one shilling normally paid for lesser quality silhouettes.

Bishop of Bangor. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as it appeared as if Auguste Edouart had a new profession bad luck hit when he was injured. It occurred when he helped a woman cross a stile and a protruding nail got caught on her dress. Edouart attempted to prevent a recurrence by removing the nail, but in the process, he lacerated his finger. The injury was severe enough it affected his silhouette cutting skills and caused him great distress. However, one night he dreamt that he could cut just as well if he used his middle finger. So, thereafter, he always used his middle finger to cut out his work.

Silhouette artists sometimes incorporated distinguishing traits into their work. Edouart did, and the distinguishing traits of his work were noted by one twentieth century historian:

“His trademark was the ubiquitous white collar of his subjects. He often cut a slit in the neck and inserted a piece of white paper cut to represent the collar. He used embellishments of silver on the black shapes to represent hair style, buttons, military braid, lapels, and other features.”[4]

Another distinguishing trait of his silhouettes, was that he liked to cut a whole figure rather than just a face. He believed that a figure could better delineate the character of a person than a face. Moreover, “groups gave an opportunity for contrast in proportion, and were therefore much esteemed by him.”[5] In addition, one newspaper described how he was able to achieve his silhouettes:

“Edouart was an early riser, and indefatigable in his work. To preserve a steady hand he was obliged to be most particular in his diet, and could not venture on strong tea, coffee, or spirits. He had a variety of ingeniously arranged, ready-prepared backgrounds, lithographed in a light neutral tint … and in drawing of special backgrounds he employed skilled assistants.”[6]

Auguste Edouart toured England creating silhouettes beginning in 1825. Many others were creating silhouettes, and one person who may have been in competition with him was Madame Tussaud’s son, Joseph. He began creating silhouettes in 1823, having been trained by his mother’s friend. However, Joseph used a machine rather than working free-hand like Edouart.

Edouart also spent time touring in Bath, Scotland, and Ireland. He arrived in Edinburgh in 1829 and remained there for three years. During his stint in Edinburgh, he produced some 5,000 likenesses, and because of his skill and his prolific output, he acquired a reputation as a silhouette expert. His reputation was further enhanced when he wrote a book in 1835 titled, “A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses.”

Because Edouart’s silhouettes were of such quality, he also obtained work from the French Royal family. It happened in 1830 when he was requested to visit Holyrood where Charles X and his entourage were staying. While there, Auguste Edouart created a silhouette of Charles X, and, later that same evening, Edouart cut the likenesses of the Duke and Duchess d’Angoulême, the Duchess of Berri, and others. He declared that after his visit that he was “a daily visitor at Holyrood, and my exhibition was often honoured by Royalty.”[7]

Auguste Edouart shows his skills shown in this silhouette

Auguste Edouart shows his skills in this silhouette of the Duchess d’Angoulême (seated), Charles X (seated), and Duke d’Angoulême (standing). Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Although the daguerreotype would eventually replace the silhouette, Edouart was wildly popular when he arrived in the United States in 1839. He remained busy in America for the next nine or ten years making silhouettes. Among his patrons was America’s ex-President, John Quincy Adams, who mentioned Edouart when he wrote to George Washington in March of 1841.

“Mr. Edouart is a Frenchman … who cuts out profiles in miniature on paper, and came and took mine. … He took one also of my father from a shade taken in 1809, which with those of my mother, my wife, and myself, and our sons George [and John] then boys 8 and 6 years of age, we have under glass in one frame. He gave me a full-length profile of President Harrison, in the attitude of delivery his inaugural address.”[8]

Edouart also created full length profiles of Adams, Adams’s father, and America’s current President at the time, John Tyler. Adams noted that Edouart had accomplished the likenesses of many other “distinguished” Americans. For instance, between 1843 and 1844, Edouart travelled extensively throughout Mississippi and accomplished the following likenesses:

“Stephen Duncan, General Reuben H. Grant, Prof. J.W. Ingraham, Judge Edward McGehee, and both James Tooley, the artist of the Natchez, and his father, Henry Tooley. Edouart also cut silhouettes of the Young family of Natchez, as well as silhouettes of family slaves.”[9]

John Quincy Adams, George Peter Alexander Healy, 1858. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Adams mentioned that what he thought was most striking about Edouart’s work was “his choice of pose and the elegance of his groupings or tableaux.”[10] In addition, Adams visited Edouart at his residence and saw his astonishing collection that consisted of more than 85,000 silhouettes. He always cut a second silhouette of each sitter, added the name of the sitter, and the place where it was taken, and then he pasted it into a scrapbook.

Before Auguste Edouart left America, on 14 February 1845, he ran an ad in the New-York Tribune that stated:

“MONSIEUR EDOUART, Silhouttist of the French and English Royal Families, respectfully informs the public that he has returned to New-York, after a tour of four years through all the principal cities of the United States. He brings with him a valuable collection of Likenesses of distinguished characters … His American collection amounts to 25,000 and his European to 125,000: all with their autographs appended. … Being about to leave this country for Europe, he invites his friends and the public generally to call as early as possible. Likewise, DAGUERREOTYPE LIKENESSES taken from nature, Portraits and Miniatures.”[11]

Claimed to be the finest silhouette cutting ever produced by Auguste Edouart. Author’s collection.

Auguste Edouart’s mention of the daguerreotype in 1845 shows that he realized the heyday of silhouettes was nearly over and he was looking for a way to stay relevant. The end of Edouart’s silhouette creations happened sooner than he thought. On his way back to France he boarded the Oneida, and it wrecked in Vazon Bay, off the coast of Guernsey. All but 14 of his silhouette scrapbooks were lost, and one historian noted that Edouart “valued his collection so highly that it quite broke his heart when the entire collection went to the bottom of the sea.[12]

After the wreck, Edouart was befriended by a family named Lukens (or Lukis) who helped him resume his journey. In return for their help and friendship, he left the remainder of his scrapbooks that contained about 12,000 silhouettes to the Lukens’s daughter, Frederica. The scrapbooks were forgotten until 1911 when an expert on silhouettes named Mrs. Nevill Jackson discovered them and purchased them.

Back in France, Auguste Edouart created a few smaller silhouettes. He also did some individuals, such as the renowned writer, Victor Hugo. However, Edouart’s days of silhouette creations were essentially over. He eventually moved to a small town near Calais and died at Guines on 14 December 1861 at the age of 72.

References:

  • [1] The English Illustrated Magazine v. 7 (London: Macmillian and Co., 1890), p. 749.
  • [2] E. Neville Jackson, The History of Silhouettes (1911), p. 49.
  • [3] The English Illustrated Magazine, p. 750.
  • [4] Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720-1980 (University Press of Mississippi, 1998), p. 77–78.
  • [5] Ethel Stanwood Bolton, Wax Portraits and Silhouettes (Boston: Massachusetts Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1915), p. 59.
  • [6] Pall Mall Gazette, “Some of the Magazines for July,” July 4, 1890, p. 7.
  • [7] E. N. Jackson, p. 63.
  • [8] Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John Quincy Adams and His Wife (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970), 212
  • [9] P. C. Black, p. 77.
  • [10] A. Oliver, p. 212.
  • [11] New-York Tribune, “-,” February 14, 1845, p. 3.
  • [12] Mary Mapes Dodge, St. Nicholas: A Monthly Magazine for Boys and Girls v. 34, pt. 1 (New York: The Century Co., 1907), p. 331.

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