Lovely and serene silhouette of Abby Williams May, from the rescued folios of Augustin Edouart. This American cut silhouette depicts a young girl who, at 15 years old, probably had no idea of her coming importance to Boston, and to society in general. Abby was born in 1829 to Samuel and Mary Goddard May. Her father was a merchant in Boston. He was a deacon in the church. Mary May was active in the anti-slavery and temperance reform movements. She was interested in all avenues of improving women’s condition.
Abby was the youngest of six children and she had very delicate health in her youth. Abby started her education at the “Infant School” under the guidance of a Miss Brush. In 1836 (8 years prior to sitting for this silhouette). She later when to the school of the Misses Smith and later to Mr. Folsom’s school and then the school of Mr. George B. Emerson. She finished school at the age of 18 in 1847 (three years after her silhouette). Abby was very religious and attended services of many religions saying, “Experiencing religion seems to consist in joining a church you were not brought up in.” By the 1850s Abby was active in a number of charitable organizations such as the Provident Association, the Reform School at Lancaster and the Aunty Gwynn Temporary Home of which she was a board member. She was first a student and then a committee member of the School of Design for Women which worked to help women prepare themselves for employment in the community.
In 1853, Abby became a surrogate mother for her brother Fredric’s daughter after his wife died in childbirth of the baby girl. She set about to make sure the child had a strong education, starting a classroom for three children whom she taught herself. When a female doctor came to Boston to accept a chair at the New England Female Medical College, Abby made sure that her young students had clinical instruction from the good doctor!
By 1861, Abby became an abolitionist. At one time, she helped staff a boat which brought injured Union soldiers back to hospitals. She was one of the very few female delegates sent to elect a president for the new Union. Once the war was over, Abby transferred her full attention to the Committee on Teachers of the New England Society where she became a ardent suffragette, seeking full rights for women of the U.S. In 1868, Abby because the director of an Association for the Advancement of Women. She was instrumental is pushing the Massachusetts legislature to pass a law declaring women eligible to serve as members of School Committee and was immediately elected to the School Board. Abby cared for her aged mother until her mother’s death in 1882. In 1888, Abby asked to be brought to the Massachusetts Homœopathic Hospital in Boston (she allowed herself to be treated only with homœopathic medicine) where she lived until her death in November 1888.
Edouart’s likeness of Abby May shows at young teen girl standing elegantly with her hair braids pulled up to loop at her neckline. She wears a flounced skirt that reaches her ankles with underpants which peek below and slippers on her feet. She holds a pair of eyeglasses. The silhouette exhibits the light wax pencil or chalk embellishment that Edouart began using in 1843. There is a slight smudge on the background paper behind her shoulder. It appears that one arm of her spectacles was lost when the folios sank on the Oneida and a slight white bloom in her skirt shows a bit of saltwater damage from the time under the water. Although Mr. Vernay carefully removed Edouart’s inscription from the bottom of the original folio page and placed it under the figure, the inscription is all but washed away by the salt water….basically illegible. The inscription on the reverse of the figure fared better, but it is also somewhat faded (but definitely legible). The silhouette remains framed in the simple black ebonized wood frame that Mr. Vernay favored and has glass on the reverse as well as the verso. The reverse also bears Mr. Vernay’s collection label on which her name has been written and a collection number that is likely from a later collection. Framed size is 12 5/8” x 5 ¾”. I usually have these folio silhouettes reframed into period maple frames, more in keeping with what Edouart would have used, I am putting this one up in Mr. Vernay’s frame to lower the cost and allow it to be offered for holiday gift giving. I you would like to have it reframed, I can check my stash of antique frames and quote a cost for having it reframed.
Provenance: Collection of Arthur Vernay
Reference: Jackson, Mrs. F. Nevil, Ancestors in Silhouette by August Edouart, The Bodley Head, London; John Lane Co., New York, 1921, at 214.
Please see the Silhouettist Bios page for more information about Augustin Edouart.