SAINT-MÉMIN, [Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de]. ~ General Samuel Smith. Philadelphia, 1798.
Engraved oval portrait (etching and aquatint) after a physionotrace, 70 × 68 mm (sheet size 108 × 90 mm). Early manuscript caption in ink. Very slight creasing to right margin.
A physionotrace portrait of General Samuel Smith (1752-1839), American Senator and Representative from Maryland and an original member of the Society of the Cincinatti in 1783.
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).
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. An original portrait, together with the copper plate and twelve impressions cost $25 for gentlemen, $35 for ladies, presumably because of the more elaborate details of hair, though many male sitters (including Smith) sported elaborate braids.