James Breckinridge, engraving from a drawing by Saint-Mémin, 1808
James Breckinridge, as readers of this blog already know, was my four-great-grandfather. His grandfather, Alexander Breckinridge, immigrated from Ireland with his wife and seven children, one of whom was Robert Breckinridge, James’s father. They took an oath on 22 May 1740 to qualify for the right to obtain land, and settled in what is now Botetourt County, Virginia. Robert had several sons from two marriages; all the brothers except James moved west, notably to Kentucky, where they established a political dynasty.
James was born 7 March 1763 near Fincastle, the seat of Botetourt County, where he maintained his residence at Grove Hill until his death 13 May 1833. In 1781, at the age of 18, he joined a regiment headed by his uncle, Colonel William Preston, and fought in the southern campaigns of the Revolutionary War under General Nathaniel Greene. He graduated from William and Mary College in 1785, then studied law, and began practicing in Fincastle. Even before that, on 13 June 1782, he was appointed deputy clerk of Botetourt County; he later became commonwealth’s attorney. He was first elected to the Virginia house of delegates in 1789 and served continuously until 1802, and was returned for shorter terms 1806-1808, 1819-1821 and 1823-1824. He served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1809 to 1817, as a member of the Federalist party. He was commissioned brigadier general of the Virginia militia on 1 February 1809 and served during the War of 1812 from 31 August 1812 to 30 November 1814. Between 1814 and 1816, he served on a commission to study Virginia’s rivers, and took a great interest in constructing canals along the Potomac and the James Rivers. In 1818 he was asked by Thomas Jefferson to help plan the University of Virginia, and held a seat on the university’s board of visitors from 1819 to 1833. In short, for his entire adult life he was involved in public service.
Grove Hill, painting by Edward Beyer, 1854 in the Botetourt County History Museum, Fincastle, Virginia
James Breckinridge married Ann Selden on 1 January 1791 in Richmond, Virginia. She was from a family of Tidewater plantation owners, who settled at Buckroe in Elizabeth City County (now part of Hampton City). Ann was born there around 1765 and died on 17 March 1843 at Grove Hill. They had ten children, of whom the second was Elizabeth Breckinridge, who married Edward Watts. James Breckinridge can be found in the census of Botetourt County in 1810, 1820, and 1830. The early census reports name only the heads of household, and enumerate others only by race, sex and in broad age groups. There were 12 white residents in 1810, 15 in 1820, and 5; in 1830; in the same years, there were 109, 95 and 126 slaves, figures that mark Grove Hill as one of the largest and wealthiest plantations of the region.
The portrait of James Beckinridge was taken in 1808 in Richmond, Virginia, by the French artist Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852). He was a French nobleman, who like many young men of his class had been destined for a military career. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, his family had to flee for their lives, and he eventually made his way to New York in 1793. Penniless, he turned to a talent he had shown in his youth, drawing. He adopted a device called a physiognotrace (or physionotrace, the French spelling), which mechanically drew silhouettes. The artist then filled in the outline by crayon, and from the final drawing engraved a copper plate, from which multiple copies could be printed. The illustration at the left shows a self-portrait of Saint-Mémin on the dust jacket of the definitive study of his work, Ellen G. Miles, Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America (National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
The physiognotrace was invented by another Frenchman named Gilles-Louis Chrétien in 1783-84, to facilitate the making of silhouettes, which were at the time the principal inexpensive way to create a portrait. The outline image as a portrait form had existed from prehistory, but the word “silhouette” comes from the name of still another Frenchman, Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767), who was the controller general of finances in France under Louis XV for a few unhappy months in 1759. He was given the unpopular task of trimming the budget during the Seven Years’ War, and his name came to signify “doing things cheaply”. It is said that Silhouette himself dabbled in shadow outline portraiture; in any case, the name stuck as a designation of such portraits.
For an interactive version of this image with an explanation of its operation, click here. For an article with more illustrations and an explanation of different versions of the machine, click here.
Saint-Mémin never had any formal training in art, and had to teach himself how to engrave on copper plates. Moreover, because he needed to earn his living, he worked as fast as possible, and succeeded in reducing the time required to produce the portrait and engravings to three days. An essay accompanying an exhibit of his work at the National Portrait Gallery quotes an advertisement he placed in Philadelphia newspapers in 1801 and 1802:
"The original portrait, plate and twelve impressions, shall be delivered for the moderate price of twenty five dollars for gentlemen, and thirty five dollars for ladies; the portrait without engraving may be had for 8 dollars."
The essay observes that women’s clothing and hair required more work than men’s; hence the higher price. The artist often provided frames, which were gilded and included a glass decorated with black paint and gold leaf.
Saint-Mémin stayed in America from 1793 until 1810, returned briefly to France, but came to America again from 1812 to 1814. He then moved permanently back to France, his family’s estate having been restored to him after the Restoration of the monarchy, and he lived out his days as director of the art museum in his native Dijon. While in America, he produced almost a thousand portraits, including likenesses of many of the most famous men of the era, including John Adams, DeWitt Clinton, William Henry Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, John Marshall, Charles Willson Peale, Paul Revere, Benjamin Rush, and George Washington. He kept copies of the engravings for himself, and produced several albums, the most complete of which are at the Corcoran Gallery, the Grolier Library, and the National Portrait Gallery.
The portrait of James Breckinridge became part of the inheritance of the Watts family, descendants of Elizabeth (Breckinridge) Watts. In 1904, William J. Campbell, an expert on Saint-Mémin who was compiling a definitive catalogue of his portraits (which was never completed), wrote to my great-grandmother, Gertrude (Lee) Watts to ask about it. Although Campbell’s papers are now in the American Philosophical Society’s library in Philadelphia, they do not have Mrs. Watts’s reply to the inquiry.
As was typical, the profile in the drawing faces the opposite direction from the engraving.
In this photo, the original portrait can be seen, with its original gilded frame and the painted glass mat. The glass was restored at an unknown date in the past, and the portrait as well as the frame had conservation work done in 1989. The portrait will become part of the collections of the newly refurbished History Museum of Western Virginia when it reopens in 2012.