Of dogs, vacations, and Jews.

Author:Leibman, Laura
Position:A Scholarly and Literary Symposium - Augustin Edouart

In the era immediately preceding photography, silhouettes were all the rage: They were cheap, quick, and, at their best, they captured the essence of an individual. One of the greatest silhouette makers was Augustin Edouart, who, unlike inferior talents, could cut a likeness freehand in a few seconds, without the crutch of machines, shadows, or paint. (1) Having made more than six thousand likenesses in England and Scotland, Edouart came to the United States in the late 1830s and became a favorite at vacation spots like Saratoga Springs, New York. (2) It was in Saratoga Springs that he created the charming silhouette of two New Orleans Jews, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Tobias, and their dog on August 26, 1844. (3) Folk portraits like Edouart's unveil early American Jews' everyday lives.

When faced with an early portrait, I usually begin with three questions: (1) What genre does the portrait manipulate? (2) Who made the portrait, when and where? and (3) What does the portrait proclaim about the sitters? Early American portraits employ a variety of genres with distinct conventions. Prior to the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the most popular genres of portraiture patronized by early American Jews were miniatures painted on ivory, half- and full-length paintings, drawings in pen or crayon, and silhouettes. Silhouettes offered both value and social cachet. To have your portrait cut by Edouart, for example, was to place yourself among the ranks of the royal family, famous authors, and statesmen, yet silhouettes were much cheaper than most other kinds of portraits and typically cost only one to six shillings. (4) Both professionals and amateurs made silhouettes, including Jewish women, as evidenced by Edouart's portrait of Rebecca Moses cutting a silhouette. (5)

Silhouettes were associated with leisure: hence, the portrait's who, where, and when are revealing. Silhouettes correlate with the rise of the tourist trade and the importance of leisure for class identity. Leisure had an impact on where the portrait was made. In England, Edouart plied his craft primarily at popular spas at Bath, Cheltenham, and Leamington. In North America, many of his pieces were made at the fashionable Saratoga Springs, where he spent five summers. (6) Although Edouart also made excursions to major cities, spas provided much of his income, not only because of the bath's high turnover rate, but also because baths attracted the rich and powerful and those who aspired...

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