Children, primitives and great artists like Matisse know something about the power of shadows, paper cutouts, and silhouttes. "Cutting to the quick in color," Matisse called it. Children cut hearts and snowflakes out of paper, enchanted as much with the negative image of the holes as with the hearts. Children play with shadows (as do boxers and sometimes cavemen), projecting onto walls the shapes of animals they make with their hands, invoking the fantasy that inside every ordinary-looking hand, there lurks the shadow of a rabbit, or a crocidle or a bird on the wing. Primitives won't step on their friends' shadows, which, if you go to see the 19th-century silhouettes of Auguste Edouart at the National Portrait Gallery, you will comprehend, is probably a good idea.

A man's silhouette is more essential than a signature, more evocative of his stance, his vanities, of the things that life has added to his profile (paunch, plumes) or subtracted from it (hair, arrogance). A silhouette is more telling than a fingerprint. It's the body's most expressive hieroglyph, a way to capture images so simple and primal that Pliny the Elder maintains the tracing of a shadow by the Corinthian potter's daughter was no less than the origin of painting.

Auguste Edouart (1788-1861) is not an artist of great power. He was an artist of the parlor, of the spa, of chic society, in a day when silhouettes cut of black paper were the cheapest, quickest likenesses that could be made. There were no Polaroids, few daguerrotypes, and only a few of the rich and very vain could afford to have their portraits painted.

Silhouettes were all the rage then. One reason was that - a generation earlier - a Swiss cleric named Lavater announced that you could read physiognomy like the stars, that bumps on the head and the tilt of the nost bespoke universes. Lavater analyzed profiles of Washington and Franklin is silhouette, and described the character of these worthies with the kind of vague, benevolent locutions you read today in horoscopes. Washington's profile, Lavater wrote, "indicates sound judgement . . . freedom from prejudice . . . a heart that opens itself to truth . . ."

By Edouart's time, cutting likenesses had become one of the soft arts taught elegant young people as a parlor pastime. After a short career as director of a china factory, Edouart, a Frenchman, said he was "devoted to Napolean, and refused to pledge allegiance to Louis XVIII. He was, he says, "compelled to expatriate" to London in 1814. He earned his living from then on by cutting silhouettes - hustling assiduously from spa to spa and back again in search of prominent sitters.

Edouart cut nearly 4,000 silhouettes during the decade (1839-49) he spent in America, traveling back and forth between Saratoga, Boston, New York and other cities. He always used a double fold of paper and bound the duplicates he kept for himself into more than 50 albums. All but 16 were lost at sea when Edouart's home bound ship sank in a winter storm near Guernsey. Edouart was so disturbed by the catastrophe that he never cut another silhouette.

The album at the National Portrait Gallery has 348 silhouettes representing a panorama of American life in the early 1840s. Edouart insinuated himself into the presence of four Presidents, five Supreme Court justices, senators, governors, commodores, abolitionists - and other Americans, who were just plain interesting. In silhouette, John Quincy Adams or Daniel Webster or John Calhoun become enormously evocative presences, triggering the fancy more than any unctuous, well-warted portrait in oils could.

Edouart's profile of Daniel Webster captures an aspect of that great man's character one had suspected - having heard a few million well-chosen words from modern senators - but had never seen in the many oil portraits of Webster. The Gallery has put out a book of the silhouettes, "Auguste Edouart's Silhouettes of Eminent Americans," with biographies by Andrew Oliver. In it, Oliver calls Webster "the godlike Daniel, who Sydney Smith said was 'a Cathedral in himself,' and who Van Wyck Brooks characterized as having 'an eye as black as death and a look like a lion's.'"

In Edouart's silhouette, Webster's hair stick out in a manner more disheveled than Olympian. His nose is a little porky. He looks the very image of a windbag, indeed, and one wonders if it is not difficult to wrestle with the devil, even semantically, without tripping over the pom-pons on your shoes?

John Calhoun combed his hair straight up, like a cock's comb.

William Henry Seward, who was to buy Alaska and become Lincoln's Secretary of State, looks like a posy-sniffing Oscar Wilde esthete.

John Tyler, the 10th President, has a proboscis so imperial it is clear he spent his life standing up to its awesome demands: Thomas Sully, the Philadelphia society painter, clearly knew his audience. He stands at his easel, dressed not in a torn sweater and blue jeans, but in a swallow-tailed coat and an enormous, fluffy bow tie of the kind called "pussycat."

John Quincy Adams is the most extraordinary and plenipotentiary character in Edouart's album. He was a one-man government. He served as the sixth President, a Supreme Court justice, Secretary of State, senator, ambassador to the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, and England. In 1841, when Edouart took his profile, Adams had started over again - as the 74-year-old congressman from Massachusetts. In a group of portraits where there is a lot of ingenuous bluster, many large stomachs, cocked hats, fingers raised in declamation, Adams stands soberly. His hands are folded. He wears a conservative coat. He is not bowed by life, but contemplative.

If Edouart provides the viewer with vivid new images of the famous (they linger in the mind's eye longer than more detailed paintings, do, because they are easy-to-read and one-dimensional), his obscure faces are more exciting. The best thing about this exhibit, and its book, is that they stop you, in the midst of careening off to bake fruitcakes or to tack weather stripping on the back door, to ponder lovely lives long gone, Chin Sung's, say, or Laura Bridgman's, of John Ross'.

How did John Ross, a bantam Scotsman whose silhouette shows him holding a very tall top hat, get to be chief Kooweskowe of the Cherokee nation? At one point in an Indian war, Olvier writes, the wee brave had a bodyguard of 200 armed Cherokees.

How did Laura Bridgman, who was blind and deaf from the age of 2, learn, in 1840, to write her name? It's there, her signature on the portrait, proof that she lived and struggled and wrote her name - and stood for a portrait by Auguste Edouart - along with the proudest and the loudest of her day.

And what are we to make of the enigmatic Chin Sung? All we know is that he had a knee-length pigtail and Chinese robes and a beanie, and that Edouart took his profile in Washington, D.C., in 1841. What was he doing here? Was he homesick? Did Edouart, his eye dulled on eminence, refresh it with poetry and obscure exotics? All we know is what Chin Sung wrote on his profile, in Chinese.

From Pekin

Arriving Canton Province

and Macao

Mr. Chin Sung

Portrait

Always chatting

with his friends

and looking at the moon

recites a poem.

That Edouart found poetry in Washington is enough. But he also used his little embroidery scissors to snapshot his world, its mischief, its dignity, its charming or extraordinary lives. It's good to know the familiar shape our world was in 120 years ago.