It was a pleasant Friday on May 20th, 1842 when two brothers travelled from Jamaica Plain to Boston. Their destination was the studio of Auguste Edouart, where they were to have their likenesses captured “en silhouette.” The two men were David Stoddard Greenough III and his brother James, and the portraits created on that day, nearly 180 years ago, have recently come home, and are now part of the Loring Greenough House’s permanent collections.
Silhouette portraits were extremely popular from the 1790’s to the 1840’s. Unlike formal oil portraits, which were expensive and demanded lengthy sittings of their subjects, silhouettes were relatively inexpensive and could often be completed within minutes. Undoubtedly, the acknowledged master “cutter” of the day was Auguste Edouart.
Born in France in 1789, he left his home country in 1814 and established himself in London. He began his career producing meticulous portraits in wax and hair, but by 1825 he had begun working almost exclusively as a silhouette portraitist. He moved from England to Scotland and Ireland, then travelled through the United States from 1839 to 1849. Wherever he went, his unique talents were highly acclaimed and sought after. He produced silhouettes of many of the most famous and distinguished personages of his era, including foreign heads of state and 4 American presidents.
Most silhouette artists of the time produced very static and formal head and bust images. With unrivaled skill and a keen eye for detail, Edouart preferred to depict the entire figure — standing, sitting, gesturing or engaged in physical activity. He also excelled at creating complex group and family portraits, each figure highly animated and uniquely expressive. These silhouettes convey a sense of movement and liveliness unmatched by other artists of the form.
Often he would mount his silhouettes on a printed or lithographed background which added to it’s verisimilitude. The figure of David Stoddard Greenough, for example, is mounted on a print where he appears to be standing on a harbor walkway looking out to sea. Edouart cut his silhouettes free hand with very sharp embroidery scissors. He always used a folded sheet of heavy black stock, enabling him to produce a copy of every work. He carefully documented, dated and assembled his copies into scrapbooks or folios.
Unfortunately, upon his return to France in 1849, Edouart survived a shipwreck, but 14 of these folios were lost. About 12,000 out of 100,000 silhouettes were recovered. Heartbroken by this loss, Edouart never produced silhouettes again, and died in Guines in 1861. Also, by 1849, the invention of the camera and the advent of photography led to the demise of the silhouette as a popular form of portraiture.
However, because he was so prolific for so many years, thousands of Edouart’s silhouettes survive today throughout the world, in the hands of private collectors, museums and cultural institutions, including our own Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Athenaeum. And now, most appropriately of all, in the Loring Greenough House.
by Vincent Longo, docent and Loring Greenough House board member