Art Treasures of Washington – The Saint Memin Collection

AMONGST the treasures of the Corcoran Gallery is preserved one of the two original collections of engraved portraits by Saint Memin, presented to the institution by W. W. Corcoran.

The collection numbers eight hundred and eighteen portraits, of the regulation size and shape, many of them lettered with the name of the sitter and the date, in the artist’s own hand ; five silhouettes and some small portraits, a plan of the siege of Ticonderoga, the central part of Raphael’s ” Madonna of the Chair,” and a bridge. It is bound in four volumes, composed of thick leaves with depressed centres, in which the prints are mounted.

Fevret de Saint Memin (1770-1852) presents to the student of Americana a fascinating field of interest. He was one of several distinguished foreigners, including James Sharpies and Robert Edge Pine, who came to this country, in the early days of the Republic, to profit by the stimulus to patriot-ism inspired by the great war and its consequences.

Even our own native painters, Trumbull, Charles Willson Peale, etc., were not indifferent to the opportunities presented by the awakening of consciousness in a newly emancipated people, with its line of heroes; though they may be supposed to have been actuated largely by motives of patriot-ism, in their desire to perpetuate the fathers of their country.

Saint Memin, a member of a family of rank and fortune, was born in Dijon in the year 1770. He became an officer of rank in the French Guards, attached to the court of Louis XVI, and after the outbreak of the Revolution, joined the army of the Princes, where, although his time was short, he received the title of lieutenant colonel. The horrors of this war, and the necessity of fortune, drove the fancily out of France, and the young soldier and his father started for the West Indies, where his mother had large estates, from Holland, by way of Canada. On their arrival in New York they were greeted by the news that a revolution had taken place in San Domingo, and that the planters had been driven from the island.

Deprived of all wealth, Saint Memin turned to his artistic accomplishments as a means of livelihood, and began his artistic career by making views of New York, which were well received. At the time of his student days in France, mezzotint profile portraits were very popular in Paris. The engraver Chrétien had invented a mechanical de-vice for making profiles or silhouettes, called a physiognotrace, by means of which portraits of the greatest accuracy in the detail of features, dress, and fashion, were reproduced. Developing his compatriot’s idea, Saint Memin succeeded in producing artificial aids to drawing much less ponderous and easier of manipulation. He invented an-other machine to reduce the portraits to a small size for engraving; and next undertook to engrave them himself. With nothing but an encyclopaedia at hand, and with instruments of his own invention, his mechanical genius enabled him to engrave on copper, in the beautiful, sharp, and finished style his works display.

With the first instrument he drew upon pink paper a life size outline of the head and shoulders of the sitter, finishing it, by hand, in crayon. The second machine was used to reduce the figure to a size small enough to be engraved within a perfect circle, two inches in diameter. The plate was pre-pared to receive the ink by engraving and by in-denting it by means of steel rollers, or roulettes; and the result was a mezzotint of remarkable clearness of character and accuracy of line.

These extraordinary portraits show, in Saint Memin, a highly developed artistic sense. As his skill increased, he reduced the time spent upon his portraits from two weeks to three days, and the number of his patrons grew until his books were filled for weeks ahead. The drawing and engraved plate, with a dozen proofs, became the property of the sitter for the price of $33, the artist reserving only a few proofs of each portrait.

Having prosecuted this business in New York from 1796 to 1798, Saint Memin, after a short stop in Burlington, went to Philadelphia, remaining there busily employed until 18o3. He then continued his portrait work in Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, Richmond, and Charleston, South Carolina. In October, 1814, after twenty years’ exile, he returned to France and, in 1817, was appointed director of the museum of Dijon, where he remained until his death.

The best known collections of these portraits were made by the artist from proofs which he took back to France with him. One little group of sixteen pieces he had bound at Dijon and presented to his friend Monsieur Peignot. Inscribed upon the title page is the following: ” Gagne pain d’un exilé aux Etats Unis d’Amérique, 1793 a 1814.” This book brought at the Carson sale, in Philadelphia, in 1904, $330.

Two great collections were made of his other proofs, and, after Saint Memin’s death, about 186o, one of them was brought. to this country by J. B. Robertson, an English print seller. This was bought by, Elias Dexter, of New York, who published, in 1862, a volume of photographs of the collection, with a. multitude of biographical material concerning most of the persons represented. A copy of this volume is also owned by the Corcoran Gallery, greatly enhancing the value of the original collection, to which it acts as commentary.

This collection became the . property of Hampton L. Carson, and at the sale of his treasures, it was described as consisting of seven hundred and sixty-one mezzotints and brought $4,800.

The other, and larger collection, was offered to the Library of Congress, in 1874, by the noted collector of Americana, Henry Stevens, of London; and from him it was secured for the Gallery.

Amongst the portraits are a few of children, and about a hundred of women. The earliest date is 1796, and some of the first plates are signed by both Saint Memin and his compatriot and fellow exile, Valnuit, who was associated in the enterprise for about two years. In the list of sitters one finds names prominent in political, social, and business circles of the period. One of the rarest and most valuable is a tiny mezzotint profile, smaller than a postage stamp, depicting Washington.

The collection is remarkably varied and spontaneous, containing a wealth of interesting detail concerning the faces, costumes, and character of these personages of a century ago.