WATSON, David. by [SAINT-MÉMIN, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de].

WATSON, David. by [SAINT-MÉMIN, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de]. < >

~ WATSON, David. 1808

Engraved circular portrait (etching and aquatint) after a physionotrace, 72 × 65 mm (sheet size 108 × 80 mm). Early ink caption in brown in, plus a later pencil caption.

A rare physionotrace portrait of David Watson (1773–1830) was a lawyer, educated at William & Mary College (1796-1797) and (with Jefferson) a member of the first Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia in 1817. He and known to have been a confidant of Thomas Jefferson and other notable figures of the period. He was elected six times to the General Assembly and represented Louisa County at the 1829 Constitutional Convention.

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.

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