Physiognotrace portrait of Thomas Jefferson

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Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852), Physiognotrace portrait of Thomas Jefferson, n.d. [1804]. Engraving and copperplate. 7.1 x 6.6 cm. Graphic Arts French prints. Gift of Charles Scribner Jr., Class of 1943.

The French musician Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754-1811) invented the physiognotrace (physionotrace in French) in 1887. He used the apparatus to trace the silhouette of a sitter and at the same time, create a reduced copy, which could be used to engrave a lifelike image on a copper plate. Chalk drawings and oil sketches were also made using this technique. One of Chrétien’s earliest sitters was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who paid for the privilege while in Paris.

Eight years later, the French émigré Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770-1852) brought a physiognotrace to the United States and Jefferson, now age sixty-one, again sat for a portrait. According to records at Monticello, Jefferson purchased 48 prints of his own portrait and collected a number of other portraits of friends and colleagues, which sold for about $25 each.

Both a print and the copper plate are on view in our Leonard L. Milberg Gallery for the exhibition, Capping Liberty: The Invention of a Numismatic Iconography for the New American Republic, on view through July 8, 2012.

See also Howard Rice, “Saint-Memin’s Portrait of Jefferson,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 20 (Summer 1959): 182-92.

See also Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Monticello: