Memin's Portrait of Lewis

Meriwether Lewis (1803?)

Portrait by Charles Saint-Mémin

Lewis posing in profile showing his pony tail

Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia

A New Look

In May of 1801, a month after Lewis began work as President Jefferson's private secretary, Brigadier General James Wilkinson, the commanding officer of the U.S. Army, directed that officers and enlisted men were to cut off their traditional pigtails and ponytails: "For the accommodation, comfort & health of the Troops the hair is to be cropped without exception, & the general will give the example."

Saint-Mémin produced two profiles of Lewis, one probably in 1802, the other (above) in 1803. Either the captain had been exempted from the new regulation because of his inactive status, or else he defied the general's order as a political gesture.

It may be that Lewis got his GI haircut before heading for the wilderness. In any case, it was gone when Peale painted his portrait in 1807.3 His hairstyle then was known as a "Brutus," after the Roman hero of the First Century B.C.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century the hobby of a French finance minister named Étienne de Silhouette (1709–1767) initiated a trendy market for paper-cutout "shadow portraits" in black-and-white, or the reverse. They were simple and cheap, like the minister's economic theories, and reportedly more popular.

The appeal of the new "silhouette" gained impetus in the late 1770s with the creation of a pseudoscience called physiognomy, founded by Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), and based on the proposition that the shape of one's profile reflected the owner's innate moral and behavioral makeup. The next step toward meeting the demand was the technological and representational enhancement of profile portraiture using the camera obscura and other drawing aids such as the pantograph, a German invention dating from 1631, with which anyone could enlarge or reduce any drawing. In 1788, Gilles-Louis Crétien (1754–1811), a cellist in the court orchestra of Louis XVI, invented the physiognotrace, with which even a person without any artistic talent whatsoever could create an accurate profile portrait–in four minutes!

In 1793, twenty-three-year-old Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, a royalist refugee from the French Revolution, arrived in America, studied drawing briefly, and taught himself engraving. In 1796, with his own improvement of Crétien's physiognotrace, he set up his own business as a profile portraitist, quickly gaining fame and fortune as a facile, if not gifted, engraver. For twenty-five dollars a man received the original life-sized drawing, the reduced, engraved copper plate of it, and a dozen copies of the engraving, all accurate with what we might imagine was near-photographic exactitude in terms of facial features, hair styles, and clothing. A woman paid thirty-five dollars, presumably because of the increased details of her hairdo and attire.

Over a period of eighteen years, until he returned to France after the fall of Napoleon, he produced portraits of more than a thousand American subjects, including George Washington, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Indians such as the Mandan chief, Sheheke, and his wife, Yellow Corn. Like a great many other profile portraitists, including the designers of Indian peace medals, he posed his subjects in patrician attitudes within circular borders, in imitation of ancient Roman coins.

In 1802 Benjamin's older brother, William, asserted that Saint-Mémin's profiles were strikingly true-to-life.1 In 1969 historian Paul Cutright concluded, however, that Charles Willson Peale's oil paintings "probably come closer to portraying accurately the features of the two explorers than any other likeness extant."2 Barton's judgment would seem to be the more reliable, inasmuch as he was a contemporary of the two captains. However, latter image has been more frequently reproduced than Saint-Mémin's profile, especially with the approach of the expedition's bicentennial, and so there appears to be a prejudice in favor of Peale's painting.

Judge for yourself. Compare Saint-Mémin's and Peale's portraits of Lewis and Clark:

To see the other portrait, point to the image

Interactive image showing two different portraits of Lewis

For Further Reading:

Ellen G. Miles, Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical profile Portrait in America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

1. See "Federal Profiles, Saint-Mémin in America," at p. 2.

2. Paul R. Cutright, "Lewis & Clark: Portraits and Portraitists," Montana: The Magazine of Western History, XIX, 2 (April 1969), p. 39.

3. Arlen J. Large, "Captain Lewis Gets a Haircut," We Proceeded On, Vol. 23, No. 3 (August 1997), 14–17.