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 Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mmin  (1770 - 1852)

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Lived/Active: New York/New Jersey / France/Switzerland      Known for: Profilist, crayon and watercolor portraitist

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Julien Fevret is primarily known as Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Mmin

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Ad Code: 3
Charles Julien Saint Memin
from Auction House Records.
Profile Portrait of Captain Merriweather Lewis
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Between 1796 and 1810, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin created some of the most memorable images in the history of American portraiture. Nearly a thousand Americans sat for portraits, among them Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Mother Seton, Meriwether Lewis, and Charles Willson Peale.

Saint-Mémin's popularity rested on a growing appreciation for profiles as a particularly truthful form of portraiture, and his distinctive images have come to epitomize Federal America.

Saint-Memin was a member of the French hereditary nobility, and came to New York City in 1793, at the age of twenty-three as a former military officer exiled by the events of the French Revolution. In New York, Saint-Mémin turned to the arts to support himself, his parents, and his sister. With some training in drawing and an aptitude for precision, he taught himself the art of engraving. First, he made a few landscapes and city plans, and then, in 1796 he took up the profession of portraitist.

His partner was Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763-1846), also of the French military, and their heir first advertisement appeared in the NEW YORK DAILY ADVERTISER in January 1797: PHYSIOGNOTRACE. LIKENESSES ENGRAVED. The Subscribers beg leave to inform their Friends and the Public in general, that they take and engrave Portraits on an improved plan of the celebrated Physiognotrace of Paris, and in a style never introduced before in this country. From the expedition with which the work is done, and the moderation of the terms, they presume to hope that they will give satisfaction to those who, protectors of the Arts, will please to encourage them with their commands. An exhibition of their performance may be seen at Messrs. Juno. J. Stapples and Sons, No 169 Pearl Street, or by applying at their lodgings, No 11, Fair Street. ST. MEMIN & VALDENUIT.

Valdenuit made the drawings, usually on a buff- or cream-colored paper that measured about 50 by 38 cm. (20 by 15 in.) and was coated with a pink wash. Next, Saint-Mémin made the engravings. The sitter received the drawing, the plate, and a dozen engravings, a unique portrait package offered in the United States only by French émigré artists. By the time the two men ended their partnership in September 1797, when Valdenuit returned to France, they had made about sixty large-profile portraits, most of which were engraved, and they had also engraved five silhouettes.

Saint-Mémin continued the business on his own, making an additional sixty portraits in New York City in the following year, a pace that he maintained throughout his American career.

In 1798 he moved the portrait business to Philadelphia, and his parents and sister settled in nearby Burlington, New Jersey. In Philadelphia, and later in Washington, D.C., Saint-Mémin's sitters included senators, congressmen, and cabinet members in the federal government. He also attracted local merchants and landowners, French émigrés like himself, and members of the United States Army, Navy, and Marines.

Most of his patrons were men; when women were portrayed, they were usually the wives or other close relatives of his sitters. William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer, described Saint-Mémin in 1802 as an ingenious artist. He continued: M. St. Mémin's profiles are, generally, striking likenesses; and, considering the excellence of the workmanship, his price is very moderate.

By 1802, Saint-Mémin's drawing technique had evolved from the light touch characteristic of his New York portraits to a more emphatic style, with strong contrasts. Saint-Mémin rarely signed his drawings; his engravings include his name and address under the image, a practice he later discontinued, perhaps because it became too time-consuming. The package he delivered to his sitters, 25 dollars for men and 35 dollars for women, included the original portrait plate and twelve impressions or copies. Likely the engravings of women were undoubtedly more expensive because the intricate details of their clothing and hair required more work.

Saint Mémin also provided frames for some of the portraits. Many drawings are still in these frames, which were gilded and included a glass decorated with black paint and gold leaf.

After making about 270 portraits in Philadelphia, including two memorial images of George Washington, Saint-Mémin became an itinerant artist in 1803. That year witnessed a heightened interest in all types of profile portraits, a phenomenon that painter Charles Willson Peale described as the rage for profiles.

By this time Louis Lemet (circa 1779-1832), a French émigré who had served as Saint-Mémin's assistant, was making portraits in Philadelphia, in a style very similar to Saint-Mémin's.

From 1803 until 1809, Saint-Mémin traveled south, working in Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C., Richmond,Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina; and returning to Burlington during the hot summer months to engrave the copperplates and print the engravings.

He also offered watercolor portraits for the first time, perhaps in response to competition from other artists. Between 1803 and 1807, he made about 100 portraits in Baltimore and about 130 in Washington.

Saint-Mémin also portrayed several Indian visitors to Washington, most of whom came to the capital after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

Saint-Mémin's visit to Richmond in 1807-1808 was particularly successful. He made more than 120 portraits in less than a year, a record number for him. His arrival in the summer of 1807 was undoubtedly timed to coincide with the trial of Aaron Burr for treason, which began on August 3; Burr was acquitted in September. During this period, the population of the city almost doubled with witnesses, Burr partisans, and curious spectators. Many of them commissioned the artist to make their portraits, including John Marshall, the presiding judge at the trial.

In the winter of 1808 -1809, Saint-Mémin made a brief visit to Charleston, but after his return to Burlington, New Jersey in 1809, he made very few portraits.

Saint-Mémin returned to France in 1810, came back to New York in 1812, and his family returned permanently to France in 1814, after the overthrow of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. When Saint-Mémin finally left the United States, he destroyed his physiognotrace and ended his career as an artist.

However, he did not abandon his interest in the arts, however in 1817, after he and his family were reinstated on their property in Dijon, he was named director (conservateur) of the Dijon Museum, a position for the rest of his life, except for one brief, politically motivated interruption in 1848, when, during the second French Republic, he was dismissed because of his royalist political views.

Several large sets of his engravings were later compiled from the hundreds of duplicates that the artist owned. The two largest sets--at the National Portrait Gallery and the Corcoran Gallery of Art--have inscriptions that provide the identifications for many of the portraits. Within the restricted format of the profile portrait, Saint-Mémin's drawings and engravings offer an immediacy and realism that is, simultaneously, a stylized and a literal account of many of the residents of Federal America.

Source: The National Portrait Gallery, Ellen G. Miles, Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture


Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
Saint-Memin was not a professional artist when he came to the United States as a political refugee from his native France in 1793. (1)  He was, however, a talented amateur draughtsman and he put this skill to good use during the two decades he resided in America. (2)

With another émigré, Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit, he formed a partnership in 1796 to draw portraits in profile using a device called a physiognotrace, which allowed an artist to make a very precise drawing of a person’s profile.  Valdenuit returned to France in 1798, but Saint-Memin had a very successful career, taking likenesses in this distinctive manner of almost everybody who was anybody in federal America.

Before beginning a drawing he coated the front of a piece of imported rag paper with a pink wash in order to create a smoother surface on which to draw.  With the aid of the physiognotrace, he then drew the sitter’s profile in black chalk, afterwards adding the person’s features in black and white chalks.  The result was a very accurate likeness and a much more interesting, detailed, and lively characterization than a mere silhouette. (3)

Saint-Memin traveled from New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, taking portraits, and worked in Baltimore at various times between 1803 and 1807.  His portraits, with its strong, vigorous draughtsmanship, captured his subject’s character and cost approximately eight dollars.  For an additional seventeen dollars Saint-Memin would have engraved it and delivered up not only the drawing but also a copperplate and twelve impressions.

The artist had so many sitters—most of whom ordered the copperplate and impressions—that it generally took him several weeks to engrave them all. (4)


Sources include:
1. We are indebted to David Meschutt for this essay on Saint-Memin for the 2006 publication, Lines of Discovery: 225 Years of American Drawings (London & Columbus, GA: GILES & Columbus Museum).

2 Ellen G. Miles, Saint-Memin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America (Washington: National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Press, 1994) is the definitive study of his life and work.

3. Miles: 44-45, 69, 72.

4. Miles: 92, 94, 117, 119, 320. Saint-Memin kept for himself examples of each of his engravings, which he later assembled into two collections, now owned by, respectively, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Neither contains an engraving of Hillen.

Submitted by staff, Columbus Museum

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