Let’s Talk Silhouettes: An Edouart Conversation Piece

Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (French, 1789–1861). Conversation Piece (Family Group), ca. 1839. Cut silhouette with pencil and watercolor on paper. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Bartow-Pell Landmark Fund and Pride in Pelham Fund in memory of Marcia van Tassel, 1988.01

One hundred thousand. That is the astonishing number of recorded silhouette likenesses produced by the French-born artist Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (1789–1861), according to British scholar Sue McKechnie. One of those portraits, a so-called “conversation piece,” is in Bartow-Pell’s collection.

Augustin Edouart. Likeness of Monsieur Edouart from the title page of his book A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, 1835. Edouart’s portrait is surmounted by a quote in French from the noted Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), who espoused the theory that physical characteristics correspond to individual character traits. According to Lavater, a silhouette likeness allowed a person’s countenance to be read like an open book.

Edouart, the sixteenth child in his family, served in the Napoleonic Wars. But in 1814, after losing much of his property, he left France to live in England. Monsieur Edouart began his artistic career by making hairwork pictures of human or animal hair. But while visiting friends one evening in 1825, the family showed him likenesses created by a “patent machine.” In a fit of contempt, Edouart grabbed a pair of sewing scissors and quickly cut his first silhouette, a fine profile portrait of his host, which he blackened with soot from the candle snuffer.

Edouart was a virtuoso freehand cutter who was dismissive of mechanical devices—such as the physiognotrace—that were sometimes used to trace and reduce a profile. He used his exceptional artistic ability, shrewd market sense, and disdain for inferior methods and poor craftsmanship to strengthen and market his brand, and his efforts paid off in commissions and in the press. For example, on December 7, 1844, a writer for the New-York Daily Tribune admired Edouart’s work:

No one, who has any eye for art, can for a moment confound Mons. Edouart’s cuttings with common shadow likenesses or profiles. There is all the difference between the two that there is between the scraping of a fiddle for a village dance and the violin played by a master’s hand. His likenesses are not only invariably accurate, but they are full of life, spirit, and expression. Some of them seem actually to laugh, and talk, and think.

Monsieur Edouart published A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses in 1835. In this rather idiosyncratic volume, the author discusses his technique and work, gives advice, and tells personal anecdotes. Edouart probably envisioned the treatise as a platform to publicize the superiority of his portraits over those of his many competitors and as a way to boast about his aristocratic clients. The title page announces that he is “Silhouettist to the French Royal Family and Patronised by His Royal Highness the Late Duke of Gloucester and the Principal Nobility of England, Scotland, and Ireland.” In addition, Edouart used the treatise as an opportunity to vent; the long-suffering artiste goes on for almost thirty pages in a chapter entitled “Grievances and Miseries of Artists,” and another chapter discusses “Vexations and Slights.”

Edouart also popularized the French word “silhouette” in English-speaking countries. The eponymous term derived from an eighteenth-century cost-cutting French finance minister who also cut paper portraits for amusement. The use of a French word for the inexpensive medium of “black shade” likenesses was probably part of Edouart’s marketing strategy because it associated his work with France’s glamorous reputation for luxury goods. (In addition, the artist continued to style his name—Monsieur Edouart—in a fashionably French way after he emigrated.) “Why does such prejudice exist against black shades, which I call Silhouette Likenesses?” Edouart implored in his Treatise.

NPG 1638; Sir Walter Scott, 1st Bt by Augustin Edouart
Augustin Edouart. Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, 1830–31. National Portrait Gallery [London], NPG 1638

Edouart’s sitters ranged from luminaries such as Sir Walter Scott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to a variety of everyday people. He even cut likenesses of horses and dogs. Portraits were usually full length and plain black. Some were set against lithographed or painted backgrounds. Conversation pieces (such as the example at Bartow-Pell) were groups of figures that often depicted entire families engaged in various activities. Edouart always signed his work and cut duplicates, which he inscribed and saved in folios.

In 1839, after twenty-five years in Britain and Ireland as an itinerant émigré artist, Edouart sailed for America. He spent ten years traveling around the United States and cutting portraits of thousands of Americans, including several presidents. The silhouettist set sail for France in 1849 with the duplicates of his life’s work, many of which were lost when his ship was wrecked near Guernsey. Fortunately, Edouart survived, but he apparently never again cut a silhouette professionally. He died near Calais in 1861.

The conversation piece at Bartow-Pell was purchased by the museum in 1988. Unfortunately, Edouart’s original signature (which might have included the date) had been lost earlier in conservation. However, by comparing the composition of our silhouette to other works, we can assign a date of around 1839. (Click here to view an Edouart family group from that year.) Similar figures can also be found in another conversation piece dated 1839 that is in the Ulster Museum in Belfast (McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, fig. 384), a city where Edouart worked en route to the United States.

Clothing and hairstyles also provide dating clues. The woman wears her hair in a knot placed farther down on the head than in mid-1830s styles. Her sleeves have frills above the elbows and are tight on the forearm (with the narrow edge just visible above her wrist); this style was introduced in the late 1830s. And hemlines, which had previously been worn at the ankle, fell to the instep after 1836.

The Last & Newest London & Paris Fashions 1840 Morning & Dinner Dresses (detail). The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons. These sleeves are ruffled at the top and tight at the bottom, like those worn by the woman in Bartow-Pell’s conversation piece.

Edouart says in his treatise: “I have back grounds adapted to the Silhouette Likenesses [that] . . . impart greater interest than if they were standing on nothing (I mean pasted upon white paper only) . . . I have Artists (and I may say not inferior ones) employed to draw those back grounds.” The watercolor background of our family group depicts a sparsely furnished parlor. The lady sits in a scroll-back klismos chair—a common element in some of Edouart’s interior scenes—and near an upright piano. An inkwell and pieces of paper rest atop a cloth-covered table, adding an everyday element to the tableau. Backdrops in conversation pieces like those by Edouart can be useful tools for recreating historic interiors. The upstairs sitting room at Bartow-Pell, for example, reflects settings in some of Edouart’s silhouettes.

The upstairs sitting room at Bartow-Pell includes some of the same furnishings found in an exquisite family group silhouette of the Trimble family of New York cut by Edouart in 1842 that is in the collection at Winterthur. The Bartows moved into their new mansion that same year. (Click here to view the silhouette.) Note the collection of sea shells on the bottom shelf of the pier tables.

By the time of Edouart’s death in 1861, the heyday of the silhouette was over, and shades and profiles were outdated. Inexpensive portraits were coming out of the shadows, so to speak, and photographs had rapidly replaced them as a quick, easy, and affordable way to obtain realistic likenesses. But there is tantalizing evidence that Edouart started to dabble in the new and exciting medium of daguerreotypes. The famous silhouette artist placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 14, 1845, in which he assures the public that he “continues to take single Likenesses or Family Groups.” The interesting thing is that he ends with this offer: “Likewise, DAGUERREOTYPE LIKENESSES taken from nature, Portraits, and Miniatures; copies of the Silhouette Family Group.” Scholars have noted that Edouart cut very few silhouettes beginning in 1845, when, according to Sue McKechnie, only eight works were recorded. Was Edouart changing with the times? This is an intriguing subject that is waiting to be explored.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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1 Response to Let’s Talk Silhouettes: An Edouart Conversation Piece

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