Federal Profiles

Saint-Mémin in America 1793-1814

Between 1796 and 1810, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) created some of the most memorable images in the history of American portraiture. Nearly a thousand Americans sat for portraits, among them Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Mother Seton, Meriwether Lewis, and Charles Willson Peale. Saint-Mémin's popularity rested on a growing appreciation for profiles as a particularly truthful form of portraiture, and his distinctive images have come to epitomize Federal America.

A member of the French hereditary nobility, Saint-Mémin came to New York City in 1793, at the age of twenty-three. He was a former military officer exiled by the events of the French Revolution. In New York, Saint-Mémin turned to the arts to support himself, his parents, and his sister. With some training in drawing and an aptitude for precision, he taught himself the art of engraving. First, he made a few landscapes and city plans. Then, in 1796 he took up the profession of portraitist. His partner was Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763-1846), also of the French military.

Saint-Mémin and Valdenuit followed the same practice in their New York partnership. Their first advertisement appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser in January 1797:

PHYSIOGNOTRACE. LIKENESSES ENGRAVED. The Subscribers beg leave to inform their Friends and the Public in general, that they take and engrave Portraits on an improved plan of the celebrated Physiognotrace of Paris, and in a style never introduced before in this country. From the expedition with which the work is done, and the moderation of the terms, they presume to hope that they will give satisfaction to those who, protectors of the Arts, will please to encourage them with their commands. An exhibition of their performance may be seen at Messrs. Juno. J. Stapples and Sons, No 169 Pearl Street, or by applying at their lodgings, No 11, Fair Street. ST. MEMIN & VALDENUIT.

Valdenuit made the drawings, usually on a buff- or cream-colored paper that measured about 50 by 38 cm. (20 by 15 in.) and was coated with a pink wash. Next, Saint-Mémin made the engravings. The sitter received the drawing, the plate, and a dozen engravings, a unique portrait package offered in the United States only by French émigré artists. By the time the two men ended their partnership in September 1797, when Valdenuit returned to France, they had made about sixty large profile portraits, most of which were engraved, and they had also engraved five silhouettes.

Saint-Mémin continued the business on his own, making an additional sixty portraits in New York City in the following year, a pace that he maintained throughout his American career. In 1798 he moved the portrait business to Philadelphia, and his parents and sister settled in nearby Burlington, New Jersey. In Philadelphia, and later in Washington, D.C., Saint-Mémin's sitters often included senators, congressmen, and cabinet members in the federal government. He also attracted local merchants and landowners, French émigrés like himself, and members of the United States Army, Navy, and Marines. Most of his patrons were men; when women were portrayed, they were usually the wives or other close relatives of his sitters. William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer, described Saint-Mémin in 1802 as an "ingenious artist." He continued: "M. St. Mémin's profiles are, generally, striking likenesses; and, considering the excellence of the workmanship, his price is very moderate."

By 1802, Saint-Mémin's drawing technique had evolved from the light touch characteristic of his New York portraits to a more emphatic style, with strong contrasts. Saint-Mémin rarely signed his drawings; his engravings include his name and address under the image, a practice he later discontinued, perhaps because it became too time-consuming. The artist stated his terms in a newspaper advertisement that appeared in the Philadelphia Aurora and General Advertiser from December 22, 1801, through March 11, 1802: "The original portrait, plate and twelve impressions, shall be delivered for the moderate price of twenty five dollars for gentlemen, and thirty five dollars for ladies; the portrait without engraving may be had for 8 dollars." (The engravings of women were undoubtly more expensive because the intricate details of their clothing and hair required more work.) Saint Mémin also provided frames for some of the protraits. Many drawings are still in these frames, which were gilded and included a glass decorated with black paint and gold leaf.

After making about 270 portraits in Philadelphia, including two memorial images of George Washington, Saint-Mémin became an itinerant artist in 1803. That year witnessed a heightened interest in all types of profile portraits, a phenomenon that painter Charles Willson Peale described as the "rage for profiles." By this time Louis Lemet (circa 1779-1832), a French émigré who had served as Saint-Mémin's assistant, was making portraits in Philadelphia, in a style very similar to Saint-Mémin's.

From 1803 until 1809, Saint-Mémin traveled south, working in Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C., Richmond,Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina; and returning to Burlington during the hot summer months to engrave the copperplates and print the engravings. He also offered watercolor portraits for the first time, perhaps in response to competition from other artists. Between 1803 and 1807, he made about 100 portraits in Baltimore and about 130 in Washington. One of his sitters was Massachusetts congressman Nahum Mitchell, who sent an engraving of his portrait to his wife on February 26, 1804 with these words: I enclose you a profile of a friend of yours, whom perhaps you will recognize. It is said to be a very good likeness by all who have seen it. It may afford you some pleasure to see the likeness of one whom I trust you are anxious to see, and who thinks of you continually. Saint-Mémin also portrayed several Indian visitors to Washington, most of whom came to the capital after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Saint-Mémin's visit to Richmond in 1807-1808 was particularly successful. He made more than 120 portraits in less than a year, a record number for him. His arrival in the summer of 1807 was undoubtedly timed to coincide with the trial of Aaron Burr for treason, which began on August 3; Burr was acquitted in September. During this period, the population of the city almost doubled with witnesses, Burr partisans, and curious spectators. Many of them commissioned the artist to make their portraits, including John Marshall, the presiding judge at the trial. In the winter of 1808 -1809, Saint-Mémin made a brief visit to Charleston. After his return to Burlington in 1809, he made very few portraits.

Saint-Mémin returned to France in 1810 but came back to New York in 1812. He and his family returned permanently to France in 1814, after the overthrow of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. When Saint-Mémin finally left the United States, he destroyed his physiognotrace and ended his career as an artist. He did not abandon his interest in the arts, however. In 1817, after he and his family were reinstated on their property in Dijon, he was named director (conservateur) of the Dijon Museum. He held this position for the rest of his life, except for one brief, politically motivated interruption in 1848, when, during the second French Republic, he was dismissed because of his royalist political views.

In France, Saint-Mémin proudly displayed the duplicate engravings that he had kept from his years in America. He occasionally gave small groups of these engravings to friends, including a M. Sauvageot, for whom he summarized his American career in 1849 as being the result of perseverance guided by an inflexible will. . . . For my ability in the drawing phase of art I make no claims, since I made use of an instrument in order to obtain the most essential features, and since, if there is any merit in the delicacy and studied exactness of the likeness, the draughtsman owes his ability, so entirely independent of his efforts, to providence. Several large sets of engravings were later compiled from the hundreds of duplicates that the artist owned. The two largest sets--at the National Portrait Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art--have inscriptions that provide the identifications for many of the portraits. Within the restricted format of the profile portrait, Saint-Mémin's drawings and engravings offer an immediacy and realism that is, simultaneously, a stylized and a literal account of many of the residents of Federal America.


Ellen G. Miles

Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture


Additional information on the artist, his sitters, and his work can be found in Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America by Ellen G. Miles, edited by Dru Dowdy. This volume has been published by the National Portrait Gallery with a grant from the Barra Foundation and is distributed by the Smithsonian Institution Press.


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