[SAINT-MÉMIN, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de. ~ Theodore Sedgwick. 1801.
Engraved oval portrait (etching and aquatint) after a physionotrace, 70 × 65 mm (sheet size 108 × 76 mm). Early ink caption in brown in, plus a later pencil caption.
A RARE ‘PHYSIONOTRACE’ PORTRAIT OF THEODORE SEDGWICK (1746–1813), the American attorney, politician, and jurist who served in elected state government and as a delegate to the Continental Congress, a U.S. representative, and a senator from Massachusetts. He served as President pro tempore of the United States Senate from June to December 1798. He also served as the fourth speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1802 and served there for the rest of his life. He died at Boston and he is buried at Stockbridge. A portrait by Gilbert Stuart of c. 1808 is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Sedgwick studied theology and law at Yale College and though he did not graduate, he continued in his study under attorney Mark Hopkins of Great Barrington. He played a significant role in the abolitionist movement. As a relatively young lawyer, Sedgwick and Tapping Reeve had pleaded the case of Brom and Bett vs. Ashley (1781), an early ‘freedom suit’, in county court for the slaves Elizabeth Freeman (known as Bett) and Brom. Bett (also known as MumBet) was a black slave who had fled from her master, Colonel John Ashley of Sheffield, Massachusetts, because of cruel treatment by his wife. Brom joined her in suing for freedom from the Ashleys. The attorneys challenged their enslavement under the new state constitution of 1780, which held that ‘all men are born free and equal.’ The jury agreed and ruled that Bett and Brom were free. The decision was upheld on appeal by the state Supreme Court. She was the first enslaved African American to file and win a freedom suit in Massachusetts. She marked her freedom by taking the name of Elizabeth Freeman, and chose to work for wages at the Sedgwick household, where she helped raise their several children. She worked there for much of the rest of her life, buying a separate house for her and her daughter after the Sedgwick children were grown. On her death the Sedgwicks buried her at Stockbridge Cemetery in the family plot.
Before the advent of photography the physionotrace was ‘the first system invented to produce multiple copies of a portrait, invented in 1786 by Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1774–1811). In his apparatus a profile cast by a lamp onto a glass plate was traced by an operator using a pointer connected, by a system of levers like a pantograph, to an engraving tool moving over a copper plate. The aquatint and roulette finished engraved intaglio plate, usually circular and small (50 mm), with details of features and costume, could be inked and printed many times’ (Photoconservation.com, sub Printing Processes). The process was introduced to America by Charles Saint-Mémin.
The miniaturist Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) had emigrated from France in 1793 to Switzerland, where he practised as an engraver. Crossing the Atlantic to Canada and then the United States, he established a portrait business in New York with his compatriot Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (who initially produced the drawings for Saint-Mémin to engrave). When Valdenuit returned to Paris, Saint-Mémin adopted an itinerant practice all over the East Coast states, working variously at Philadelphia, Richmond, Charleston and Burlington. He too returned to France in 1814, having destroyed his drawing apparatus in a symbolic end to a prolific artistic enterprise which produced more than a thousand different portraits of significant figures in American society, including Washington, Revere and Jefferson.