If you picture a ‘magic show’ in your mind’s eye, a few common elements will surely emerge. You’ll see a witty, charismatic performer in formal attire. Simple objects will be put to use that defy the rules of the natural world. The evening will carry an air of class, elegance, and drama. All of that became commonplace in the world of magic because of one person: Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin.
This 19th century French magician has been dubbed the father of modern conjuring, a title that just scrapes the surface of his accomplishments in performance, engineering, and even international affairs. But despite his wide-reaching impact on the art form, many magic fans may have never heard of Robert-Houdin.
That’s partly due to how the man himself left his legacy. Much of what we know about him comes from an autobiography, but even in his written work, Robert-Houdin is still a master of deception. Just as he would when performing on stage, his memoir stretches reality in just the right places to create a fiction that entertains more than it educates. But thanks to some intrepid historians and researchers, Robert-Houdin’s contemporary fans can have a clearer understanding than ever of the man’s life and how he transformed the performance of magic into what we know today.
For a profession that demands such high levels of skill and carefully controlled precision, Robert-Houdin’s path to becoming a magician included some staggeringly good luck. He was born in Blois, a French town on the banks of the Loire, on December 6, 1805. His father, Prosper Robert, was a local watchmaker. This was the first stroke of luck, as young Jean-Eugene was instilled with an early fascination for mechanics and tinkering. “I am inclined to believe that I came into the world with a file or a hammer in my hand, for, from my earliest youth, those implements were my toys and delight,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Jean-Eugene attended school at the University of Orléans, graduating at 18. He aspired to pursue the family trade and become a watchmaker as well. But like so many parents, Prosper had grander visions for his son and wanted the bright young man to become a lawyer. So he took a position as a copying clerk at a Blois attorney’s office.
Then came a second, even larger stroke of good fortune, one that the he himself dubbed “the most important event of my life.” The young man went to a bookstore and asked to buy a pair of books on clockmaking to continue his own education. But though accident or maybe destiny, he found himself in possession of two volumes about magic called Scientific Amusements. We can all consider ourselves lucky that there was no equivalent of free online returns in the nineteenth century, because Jean-Eugene kept the books and his fascination with magic began.
He started teaching himself the sleight of hand tricks described in Scientific Amusements, and for years kept pursuing his twin passions of magic and mechanics. He honed his skills well enough to join an amateur theater troupe and began performing on the local circuits. Maybe stroke of luck is the wrong phrase here, but it does seem like a delightful coincidence that during his travels, the young magician became smitten with a young woman from his home town of Blois. Josèphe Cecile Houdin was the daughter of a fellow watchmaker, and the pair fell in love. They married in 1830, and he chose to hyphenate his name, becoming the Robert-Houdin that would go on to dazzle audiences around the world.
After the wedding, he joined his father-in-law’s watchmaking shop in Paris. There, Robert-Houdin was able to continue his more creative projects, developing toys and automatic figures. This work not only formed the basis for some of his later magic performances; it was his core profession. He was both artist and artisan. While he did earn a living selling some inventions to fellow performers — circus legend P.T. Barnum wound up in possession of his automaton that could write and draw, for instance — most of his sales were to collectors. His mastery of mechanics piqued the interest of many in the Parisian elite who wanted to own the curiosities he constructed. Some clients were so impressed that they became friends with the talented man, which opened the door for the next step in Robert-Houdin’s career. Thanks to his connections with those collectors, Robert-Houdin began performing magic for private parties.
At the time, this was not how most people experienced a magic show. Most magic of that day was seen as low culture, where practitioners would wear gaudy robes and claim wild supernatural abilities as their source of power. It was the stuff of street fairs and cheap theaters. The setting where he worked had a profound impact on how Robert-Houdin presented himself as a performer. He would be invited into high society homes as a guest rather than as a lowly paid entertainer, and would then perform his tricks for the entire soirée. He had to translate magic into the world of high art that would please the sensibilities of the upper classes. He brought elegance to the craft to match the upscale surroundings and company. Anyone attending a soirée would be dressed to the nines, and so Robert-Houdin wore suits rather than corny costumes when he performed. He had to be a charming, well-spoken guest in order to further connections with those wealthy individuals who could help boost all aspects of his business. He was equal parts society man, performer, and hustler.
The unique look and location wasn’t all that set him apart from the pack. Since the performances took place in private homes, Robert-Houdin couldn’t rely on elaborate sets or props beyond the mechanical works he created. His friendships may have granted him advanced access to the host’s house to do a little advanced preparation before a party, but once the guests assembled, all that he would have been able to use for his tricks would be items on their persons. His use of ordinary objects made the accomplishments seem all the more spectacular for his audience. Other magic performers at the time achieved their results with schemes, trick props, or plants in the audience. Robert-Houdin had the power to take the familiar and made it truly fantastical.
Robert-Houdin’s transformation of the magic show experience took another leap forward with the launch of his own theater and his signature show, Soirées Fantastiques, in 1845. He got financial backing from one of his early clients-turned-friends, Count de l’Escalopier, and took over a space that he designed to look like the elegant living rooms where he’d made his name as a magician. Everything he had learned from his time performing in private homes carried through in the vision for his theater. Rather than a performer on display, Robert-Houdin acted like a host. He walked among his guests, chatting with them casually one moment and astonishing them with his tricks the next.
Soirées Fantastiques also furthered both the intricacy and apparent simplicity of his act. Robert-Houdin’s increasingly powerful mechanical creations could make the impossible seem real and their complexity was a huge draw for the performance. But at the same time, he could also make a boy appear to float without a single piece of machinery.
The levitation trick was called The Ethereal Suspension, and it was one of many that involved the participation of Robert-Houdin’s son Emile. Soirées Fantastiques’ popularity soared with the introduction of the pair’s take on the Second Sight trick. Robert-Houdin would ask his guests to hold up any random objects. He would touch an item, then his son, blindfolded on the stage, would describe the object in detail. He honed the act to make the feat seem all the more impressive. In one version, Emile would give his descriptions when cued by a bell ringing and Robert-Houdin would stay silent, proving there was no secret spoken code to supply answers to the boy.
Another trick in this vein was the Portfolio. With this performance, a thin portfolio for holding documents or artwork would be placed on two sawhorses. Robert-Houdin would lift the lid of the case and seem to remove ever more astonishing objects, just like Mary Poppins’ handbag. He could even make Emile appear to emerge from a portfolio less than two inches thick. These performances were all about ordinary items put to extraordinary use, the signature approach that he pioneered.
But other parts of Robert-Houdin’s act continued to pull on his first love of mechanics. One of his iconic creations was The Orange Tree. First, Robert-Houdin would take an object from the audience, most commonly a woman’s ring or handkerchief, and make it disappear. Under his command, the clockwork tree would suddenly blossom with flowers. Then oranges would appear, also all real save for one at the top. As a grand finale, two mechanical butterflies would remove the ring or handkerchief from within the last fruit.
Here you can see a tongue-in-cheek version of this act performed by Paul Daniels.
Daniels does credit Robert-Houdin for the creation of the mechanical tree. But we can see many of the other elements that the French performer pioneered in this television special, from the walking among the audience to the sharp attire. Daniels even calls his stage set-up a living room, just like those Parisian salons. This philosophy of intimacy and elegant theatricality began with Robert-Houdin.
Robert-Houdin’s performances catapulted him to international fame. He toured around Europe for several years, with shows for royalty in France and the UK. After he stopped performing, he maintained a career as a writer. He not only penned an autobiography, but also other books on how to perform magic and an exposé on mediocre illusions.
In 1856, he was called on by the French government to help with international affairs. France was trying to subjugate an Algerian tribe called the Marabouts whose leaders claimed to have magic powers. Robert-Houdin was sent to secure their loyalty by proving that French magic was stronger than the Marabouts’ mysticism. He conducted several performances in Algeria, and another of his signature tricks served as the centerpiece to seemingly prove France’s superiority.
The Light and Heavy Chest relied on a clever use of electricity. Robert-Houdin would display a small wooden box to his audience. He’d ask a child to lift it, which they could do with ease. Then, after secretly flipping an electromagnetic switch that froze the box in place, he would ask a large, strong-looking man in the audience to do the same. The man, no matter how muscular, would fail.
For his elite European audiences, the act could be played for laughs. On his Algerian mission, Robert-Houdin claimed that he was using his magic to sap the strength of the powerful man. He claimed in his memoirs that he also rigged the box to deliver a shock, further humiliating the subject. Between the chest and his other tricks, Robert-Houdin won the admiration of the Marabouts. He copied their praise in his memoir, citing a letter from the chiefs who witnessed his show. “Our century has seen no one comparable with him,” they wrote. “The splendour of his talent surpasses the most brilliant productions of past ages. Our age is the more illustrious because it has possessed him.”
The magician died on June 13, 1871. In life and after death, he left behind an incredible legacy that inspired countless others to follow in his footsteps. If you’ve noticed the similarity between his name and the stage moniker for one Erik Weisz, you’re right to draw the connection. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the people who stole and pirated his inventions must have been very big fans of his work. If you’ve seen Edward Norton in The Illusionist, you’ve seen a variant of The Orange Tree. And if you’ve seen any magician in a top hat and tails, now you know where they stole the style. From his unique blend of skills in science and mechanics to his elevated vision of magic performance, Robert-Houdin had an unmatched impact on magic as we know it today.
To learn more about Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, check out the November 2002 issue of Genii Magazine for an interview with Christian Fechner. A magician in his own right, Fechner penned a two-part biography entitled The Magic of Robert-Houdin: The Artist’s Life.