A round 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 the subject received the original drawing, the 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.
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 a Philadelphia lawyer named William Barton 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
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 http://www.educate.si.edu/migrations/portrait/npg.html
2. Paul R. Cutright, "Lewis & Clark: Portraits and Portraitists," Montana, Magazine of Western History, XIX, 2 (April 1969), 39.