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Portrait of Gerrit Boon

Not on view

Portrait of Gerrit Boon

Artist: Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (French, 1770-1852; active United States, 1793-1814)

Date: 1801
Medium: Black and white chalk on wove paper coated with a pink opaque ground
Framed: 24 1/2 × 19 1/2in. (62.2 × 49.5cm)
Overall: 20 13/16 × 14 15/16in. (52.9 × 37.9cm)
Signed: Verso, center: 'G Boon / St Memmin / Pinxt'
Markings: Watermark, upper-right (block letters): '1794 / J WHATMAN'
Credit Line: Gift of the Oneida County Historical Society
Object number: 58.95
Text Entries

Born in Dijon, France, Saint-Mémin came to the United States in 1793, a refugee from the French Revolution. A former military officer who had some training in drawing, he taught himself the art of engraving after settling in New York City. In 1796 he and another French émigré, Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763-1846), formed a partnership to draw and engrave profile portraits. They used a device called a physiognotrace. Invented in Paris in the 1780s, it traced on paper a life-size outline of the sitter’s features. After the artist completed the details, including the highlighting and shading, patrons could purchase the drawing for eight dollars. They could also commission a dozen engravings for twenty-five dollars (thirty-five dollars for women, presumably because the details of their hair and clothing required more work). In their partnership, Valdenuit made the drawings, and Saint-Memin made and printed the engravings.(1)

When Valdenuit returned to France in September 1797, Saint-Memin continued the business in New York with French émigré Louis Lemet as his assistant. By the time he moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1798, he was an accomplished profilist. It was there that he drew and engraved Gerrit Boon’s portrait, according to inscriptions on the engraving at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, which read, “Drawn & engrd. by St. Memin Philadela.” Another engraving, at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, is inscribed “Boon. 1801” on the mount.(2)

The portrait records Boon’s appearance at the end of his decade-long stay in the United States. Boon and his friend John Lincklaen came to America from Holland in 1790 as agents for a group of Dutch investors. They reported to Théophile Cazenove, the investors’ general agent in Philadelphia, and in the fall of 1791 made an exploratory trip in New York State and Vermont.(3) In February 1792 Boon was authorized to purchase a large tract of land in Oneida County, New York.(4) The investors abandoned their initial plan to develop a maple sugar industry, and in 1793 and 1795 Boon established the towns of Olden Barneveld and Boonville.(5) When some of the investors formed the Holland Land Company in 1795, Boon became the company’s agent.“ He returned to Holland at the end of his employment.

In Boon’s portrait Saint-Mémin demonstrates his unusual talent for physiognomic accuracy in the tracing of the portrait. After determining the placement, proportions, and details of the features, hair, and clothing, he filled in the details and the shading with black chalk and used white chalk for highlights. His work was a popular example of the neoclassical taste of the late eighteenth century, with its fondness for forms that imitated the arts of classical Rome. At the same time profiles were regarded as peculiarly truthful representations because of the popular physiognomic theories of Swiss minister Johann Caspar Lavater, who used profiles to explain how character could be interpreted from the shape and outline of the head.


1. On the partners and the physiognotrace see Ellen G. Miles, “Saint-Memin, Valdenuit, Lemet: Federal Profiles,” in American Portrait Prints; Proceedings of the Tenth Annual American Print Conference, ed. Wendy Wick Reaves (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1984), 1-28. Valdenuit’s drawings of George and Cornelia Tappen Clinton (1797), in the MWPI collection, are reproduced in this article.

2. These sets of engravings were compiled after Saint-Mémin’s death from duplicates he owned. The National Portrait Gallery’s set was published by Elias Dexter; see References, at left. Dexter's book reproduces the entire set, which is the only set with dates.

3. Travels in the Years 1791 and 1792 in Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont: The Journals of John Lincklaen (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897), 5, 33, 95.

4. Wilhelmina C. Pieterse, Inventory of the Archives of the Holland Land Company (Amsterdam, Holland: Municipal Printing Office ofAmsterdarn, 1976), 10, 17.

5. John F. Seymour, Centennial Address, Delivered at Trenton, N.Y., July 4, 1376 (Utica, N.Y.: White and Floyd, 1877), 9-12; Daniel E. Wager, ed., Our County and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Oneida County, New York (Boston, Mass.: The Boston History Company, 1896), 396-98, 553-54.

6. Documents concerning his service to the Dutch investors are in the archives of the Holland Land Company; see Pieterse, Inventory, 29-30, 32, 47. See also Pilcher, Castorland, 92.


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