CHARLES BALTHAZAR JULIEN FéVRET DE SAINT-MéMIN1770-1852
Charles-Balthazar-Julien-Févret de Saint-Mémin was born in 1770 in Dijon, France, into a noble Burgundian family and had a career in the military. He had only served for two years as an ensign, however, when in 1790, he and his family fled from the French Revolution to Switzerland. In 1793 Charles, his father, and their valet, Pierre Mourgeon, sailed to America and found themselves in New York City. The youthful army officer adapted well to the Neo-classical cultural climate of his new surroundings. Being artistically inclined and trained in draftsmanship and topographical drawing, he taught himself the art of engraving, and established himself as a landscape artist and engraver. French emigré artist Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit arrived in New York in 1796 in search of an engraver to work with him in the production of physiognotrace profile portraits. Valdenuit soon found Saint-Mémin and the two men entered into a partnership, working together for a year until Valdenuit was able to return to France in 1797. The inventor of the device, Gilles-Louis Chrétien and his partner Edme Quenedey had developed the technique by which a solution of water, white chalk, and a small amount of red pigment was first brushed onto paper, then the sitter’s profile was outlined in pencil onto the paper using the apparatus known as a physiognotrace. Black chalk was then used to trace the pencil outline and to fill in the eye, ear, nose, and mouth, as well as details of clothes and hair, and then the chalk was carefully smeared with a stump, a tool made of leather or rolled paper. Finally, white chalk was used to create highlights. The resulting likeness was astonishing in it’s detail. A device called a pantograph was then used to reduce the original profile for transferral to a copperplate, which was prepared for printing with a combination of etching and engraving. The new pseudo-science of physiognomy, which theorized that traits of character were discernible through physical features of the human head, inspired a great demand for such profile portraits. When Valdenuit returned to France, Saint-Mémin continued the business on his own. In 1799 Saint-Mémin moved his portrait business to Philadelphia, closer to where his reunited family had settled in New Jersey. The artist’s years in Philadelphia were spectacularly successful, until, facing growing competition, Saint-Mémin became an itinerant artist, making his services available in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina. Upon the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the Saint-Mémin family returned to Dijon, where they resumed their former position and reoccupied their former home. Saint-Mémin gave up his career as a practicing artist, having produced nearly one thousand life-size and miniature portraits of all types of Americans–from merchants to President Thomas Jefferson–and from 1817 to the end of his life in 1852, he held the position of Director of the Dijon Museum.