It's hard to resist making fun of Edouart, one of the most pompous men that ever walked, it seems. Yet one can't deny his talent. His skill and his egotism seem to go hand in hand, impossible to imagine one without the other.
A famous self-portait by Edouart, showing himself cutting himself. Even the off-cuts are lovingly portrayed.
August Edouart arrived in England at the time of the French Revolution, together with a large family. Finding himself bereft of funds he made a name for himself as a wandering silhouettist, making frequent appearances at many of the popular resort towns of the day. He quickly made a name for himself, and developed some high society clients, which he valued greatly.
As his fame increased, so did his arrogance. He published a book called "A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses", a kind of Silhouettist's Manifesto proclaiming his work better than any before, and explaining in great detail why. There was much autobiography in it, and a wonderful chapter called "Grievances and Miseries of Artists" in which gets his own back at all those he felt had insulted him, or otherwise failed to appreciate his genius.
Edouart was probably the first artist since John Miers, a hundred years earlier, to insist that a silhouette should be a plain black outline, without embellishment. This, and only this, would do. (He was the first artist to use the word "silhouette" as well, in an effort to raise common shades to a more elevated art form).
An Edouart silhouette, in plain black, mounted on his customary lithographed background. These backgrounds were made by his own artists, "and not inferior ones, I might add" (quotes are Edouarts)
A silhouette by Edouart has a kind simple beauty. Not always anatomically accurate, they nevertheless seem to "flow" in a way which is completely believable, and which captures the essential character of his subjects. He always made full length silhouettes, almost always in standing pose. He was a master of the gentle caricature of the figure, so essential to capturing the ever elusive likeness. We can really feel the way these people stood, can almost see them about to move!
After establishing his reputation in Great Britain, he set sail in 1839 to spread his reputation to the new world. He spent many years in America, were he was well recieved and much in demand. He travelled widely, and cut profiles of many public figures of the day. Even today, he is reagarded by many American silhouettists as the father of the art in that country, and his work is the most highly valued by American collectors.
After some years in America some fool invented the dageaurotype, the precursor of the camera. Although Edouart fared better than most silhouettists, it became hard for him to make a living in the wave of enthusiasm for the new technology.
A silhouette by Edouart showing the chalk embellishments which he added late in his career, and mistakenly in my view, in a vain effort to make his art more modern.
In an attempt to re-kindle the flagging interest of his public, Edouart finally renounced his life-long conviction that a silhouette should be plain black. He even went to far as to add white embellishments retrospectively to a book of leading American figures, which he kept as a book of samples in his studio. In most cases the results were very poor, and only served to bring out his lack of anatomical accuracy at the expense of the all important "feel" of the figure. I find this change interesting because it seems to reveal a lack of awareness in Edouart himself about what it was that made his work so great.
Eventually he decided to return to Europe in 1849.
In common with many artists of that time he kept copies of all his silhouettes, which gradually accumulated in a series of leather bound record books which he insisted must accompany him on all his travels. This proved to be his undoing. On returning to Europe from America, his boat was shipwrecked off the coast of Jersey. Although he escaped with his life, most of his precious record books were lost on the bottom of the sea, where they presumably remain to this day. Now if I were a diver, that's a dive I would love to make!
After this tragedy, it seems Edouart returned to France a saddened man, and never again cut another profile. I imagine that he must have felt all his work had been in vain, without the complete record of his work that he wished to bequeeth to future generations, and that he had better give up the endeavor altogether.
A page from one of Edouart's surviving duplicate books,
each portait has the name & date under it.
August Edouart, of all artists, is the one I would most like to bring back from the dead, and show him how valued is his work today. I know that I can't afford one! I can however, console myself with a limited print book showing a series of silhouettes cut at Cambridge University, which I've illustrated below.
Charles Simeon, Nine Silhouettes by Edouart
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©Charles Burns/www.roving-artist.com/The Edo Barn Siteemail@example.com/This page was first created in September 1997 and last updated August 2012