Coming Face-to-Face With a Character

As a novelist of the American Revolution, time and time again, I am struck by the sheer concentration of extraordinary men and women who could be found among the relatively small population of North America in that era.

In the course of writing The Will — which marked a departure from my normal practice of using purely fictional characters to help bring life to real events — I encountered many such remarkable figures among the Philadelphians whom my ancestor (perhaps; see the novel) Isaac Melcher is known to have personally interacted with. Many more were almost certainly within his social circles, as Philadelphia was a relatively small town at the time.

I don’t like to write about my characters just happening to be commended by Philip Schuyler to Thomas Jefferson, or serendipitously meeting George Washington, or fighting alongside Benedict Arnold (when he was one of the “good guys”), yet all of these were true of Isaac. I mostly left those parts of his life out of the book, though, because there were just so many less well-known people who passed through his all-too-brief life.

One of those people was an artist named Pierre Eugène du Simitière, from whom Isaac commissioned a portrait, noted in the artist’s log book as having been rendered “in crayon,” which was the common term of the day for what we now call pastels. When I set out to write a short story about Isaac sitting for that portrait, I had no idea what kind of fascinating person I was about to encounter!

Du Simitière came to Philadelphia from Switzerland, via the islands of the Caribbean — nearly all of the islands of the Caribbean. He had gone there to conduct a study of the natural history of those islands, which soon also became a study of their human history, as well. By the time he arrived in Philadelphia, mere months before the Colonies were convulsed by the outbreak of rebellion, he had assembled the most remarkable collection of drawings, specimens, coins, and articles from that region that anyone had ever seen.

As depicted in “The Portrait,” his collecting only accelerated once he arrived in Philadelphia, and he wound up essentially stumbling into opening the first museum in North America, based around his collections. Along the way, he inadvertently established the practice of numismatics here, and his resulting knowledge of the symbols of heraldry enabled him to create several state seals. He is also credited with being the first to suggest the United States motto of “E pluribus unum,” which is still used to this day.

With all of these incredible accomplishments, though, what he was most widely known for was the creation of a series of engraved portraits of many of the leading patriot figures of the American Revolution. One of these is the earliest known portrait of George Washington, and the series was widely reproduced at the time, both here and across Europe.

So, the fact that Isaac is known to have sat for a portrait by such an accomplished artist excited my interest while I was researching my ancestor’s life, and I tried to discover whether and where that portrait still be extant. The Library Company of Philadelphia thought that they might have some du Simitière portraits in their holdings, but nobody could confirm it for me, much less that Isaac’s portrait was among them.

Then I came upon the portrait shown above. It is part of the collection of the New-York Historical Society, and the only du Simitière pastel portrait of anyone that I was able to discover. Most intriguingly, the identity of the sitter is unknown. Could this be the face of Isaac Melcher? The odds are against it, but… it is not impossible, so for the purposes of my story, I have treated it as being Isaac’s portrait.

The details of its execution are also described by the NYHS, and I’ve tried to incorporate those into my story. Isaac’s experience of sitting for his portrait must have been quite close to what I’ve described, in any event, and I reveled in the opportunity to visit with yet another of the participants in the lively ferment of intellectual development that seemed to fill every corner of that town.

I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading about du Simitière, and that my affectionate depiction of this wonderfully complex man strikes the right balance between amusement at how others must have seen him and deep, genuine respect for his accomplishments.