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Q&A: "A Final Image: The Thomas Sully Portrait of Thomas Jefferson"

Select answers from Gaye S. Wilson, author of Jefferson on Display: Attire, Etiquette, and the Art of Presentation

Question: Where do you see the balance between Jefferson and “republican simplicity” and his expensive tastes. . . . I’m wondering about the balance he struck between his taste, the images he wanted to project, and his spending and financial situations? (John Rudder)

GW:  This is a very significant but complex ‘Jefferson’ question. No quick answer but here are a few thoughts.   As president, Jefferson deliberately dressed down and casually received callers at the President’s House, yet he was known for his small, but elegant dinner parties with European wines and food prepared by his French chef and presided over by his French butler. A frequent dinner guest, Margaret Bayard Smith, approved the skills brought by his European staff and wrote that at Jefferson’s table “republican simplicity was united to Epicurean delicacy.” The form of government must remain republican, but Jefferson seemed intent at the same time on elevating the taste of his countrymen by introducing them to Old World refinements that included art, architecture, and cuisine. Just as he cared about his own image, he was sensitive to how the American republic was perceived by the western world. And yes, it did cost him. Many of his expenses while president, such as staff, food and wine, came from his own pocket. As he prepared for retirement in March 1809, he estimated debts contracted while in office at about ten thousand dollars. As always, he was optimistic in covering them with proceeds from his farms. And life would be simpler when he was a “private citizen” and could reduce his style of living to that of a “private family.” But even as private citizen, he never turned away the many guests that called upon the Sage at Monticello, and he continued the image of the elegant host. I discuss in my book, Jefferson on Display, that as he launched his last major project, the founding of the University of Virginia, he knew that it was necessary he maintain the image of gentleman and leading citizen in order to secure the needed support from the Virginia General Assembly. This was while, with the national economic collapse of 1819, his debts mounted to more than he could cover.  

Questions:  Any idea of the document at the bottom of the portrait? (David Maxey);
                    Is there a document on the table or is it fabric? (Anonymous Attendee)

GW:  Good observations and sorry I had to pass over this during the webinar. Yes, you are seeing a document on the desk under Jefferson’s hand in the Mather Brown portrait. Quick brush strokes indicate writing, but the only thing legible is, “M. Brown  p. 1786.” Documents were included frequently in portraits of statesmen. The Gilbert Stuart portraits of Washington and the 1805 of Jefferson, included in the online discussion, both have documents on the desks along with books. In the final portrait, artist Thomas Sully has the figure of Jefferson holding a single rolled document, and again there is an indication of writing that remains illegible. These documents serve as visual reminders as to why these figures were important and their portraits being taken.


Questions: Did Jefferson ever write about the experience of sitting for Houdon? (Jon Friedman)  
                    Did Houdon do a mask to do the bust like George Washington? (Kathy Heath)

GW:  Unfortunately Jefferson did not fully comment on his experience in Houdon’s studio, though he did make a reference to a life mask being made. Late in his retirement he recounted to a visitor at Monticello that Mdm. Houdon had anointed his face and shoulders with almond oil while Houdon stood to one side stirring the plaster He made it sound as though the experience was not altogether unpleasant. Certainly he was pleased with the resulting bust portrait. 


Question: Can you say more about how different audiences responded to portraits of Jefferson? For example did Federalists and Republicans respond to any of portraits differently? Is there evidence that certain portraits actively shaped his public image or were more widely circulated/popular than others? (Janine Boldt)

GW:  During the contentious presidential election of 1800 and on into Jefferson’s first term as president, the portrait most often copied was one by Rembrandt Peale, painted in Philadelphia during the early months of 1800. The validity of the likeness can be judged from the number of prints that were quickly made and circulated. Rembrandt (as he billed himself) has Jefferson gazing very steadily at the viewer in his fashionable black coat and waistcoat with hair dressed and powdered. There is a steadiness in the demeanor that contradicted the Federalists’ accusations in the press casting him as a weak, whimsical intellectual, not fit for the role as chief executive of the nation. Yet this was the image that Federalists copied when they needed to vilify Jefferson in political caricatures, such as “A Philosophic Cock” discussed in the webinar. Though distorted, the face is recognizable as based upon Rembrandt’s portrait. The popularity of this portrait was challenged by the Gilbert Stuart of 1805 commissioned by James Bowdoin for his diplomatic assignment to Madrid and discussed during the webinar. Stuart’s reputation as the leading American portrait artist could have bolstered interest, but certainly he produced a handsome portrait that portrays President Jefferson in a pose and setting worthy of an official state portrait. A very fine engraving of the Stuart portrait, made in 1807 by Robert Field, allowed Jefferson’s presidential image to circulate broadly.


Question: Is he making a specific statement about American simplicity with the old-fashioned coat? He also chose to wear laces and not buckles, which is another deliberate fashion choice. (Janine Boldt) 

GW:  The cut of the coat and waistcoat rendered by Thomas Sully for the West Point commission follows the style fashionable early in Jefferson’s presidency The center front of the coat slopes in a long line from the upper chest toward the side seams and the waistcoat rests slightly below waist and opens in a deep ‘V’. In contrast, the fashionable man’s coat in 1821 was moving toward an almost horizontal cut, arching slightly above the natural waist. This cut was the forerunner of today’s tail coat. I suggest in my book that the suit we see in Sully’s portrait, with knee breeches rather than pantaloons, was chosen not so much as a statement of simplicity but rather for its link to 1802 when Jefferson signed the congressional bill establishing the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. 
I am very glad you point out the shoes---or bootees as Jefferson called them---as I was not able to go into these during the webinar, and they definitely had a political significance. This style in footwear became popular during the French Revolution (but not unique to France) and made its political and egalitarian statement by replacing the elegant buckles with plebeian laces. During the election of 1800, the pro-Republican press touted Jefferson’s preference for American made clothing, including the “Jefferson shoe.” This likely alluded to the lace-up bootee, as it began to appear in political caricatures aimed at Jefferson [see “Providential Detection,” c. 1799] and this theme was taken up by the Federalists press early in Jefferson’s presidency. One Federalist commented that “our philosophic president. . .prefers shoestrings, when other folks wear buckles,” and another claimed that Jefferson was making the statement that buckles were “superfluous and anti-republican especially when he has strings.”

Question:  Did Sully paint any portraits of Jefferson’s family or the women in his life? (Karen A. Chase)

GW: Sully painted Jefferson’s daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph in May 1836 when she was age sixty-three. Family accounts say that she asked Sully to be kind and the portrait is definitely soft in the rendering of her features. She was accompanied to Sully’s studio by her daughter Virginia Randolph Trist, who credited the artist with “powers of entertainment” that caused Martha to become more animated and her eyes to sparkle. Virginia’s husband, Nicholas Trist was in hopes that Sully could be convinced to take her portrait as soon as he completed Martha’s, however it was not possible due to Sully’s extremely full schedule. Thus, the only Sully portraits of the family were those of father and daughter, Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter Martha. Monticello currently holds the portrait of Martha and a later Sully copy of the Jefferson bust portrait. 


Question:  Did Jefferson ever express an opinion about the Sully portrait? Also, was Jefferson ever painted together with John Adams or Franklin or Madison…any of his contemporaries? (Kevin Stirling) 

GW:  Jefferson did not comment on the portrait, but his granddaughter, Ellen did. She felt Sully had “succeeded admirably.” She found the upper portion of the face near perfect in likeness and felt that Sully had captured Jefferson’s dignity and expression of benevolence. Her only dissatisfaction was with the area around the mouth and chin, but she felt Sully would be able to correct that in the full-length. She was not explicit as to what troubled her, and I have studied both these portraits carefully trying to determine the change she felt was needed. It does appear that a crease from the corner of Jefferson’s mouth that was pronounced in the original bust portrait is not quite so defined in the final West Point full-length. I have wondered if that slight modification would have please Ellen. 
    The only painting in which Jefferson, Adams and Franklin appear on the same canvas is John Trumbull’s, The Declaration of Independence, July 4th 1776. As I believe I mentioned, when Jefferson commissioned the portrait of himself from Mather Brown, he commissioned one of John Adams as well. When James Bowdoin requested portraits by Gilbert Stuart for his diplomatic duty in Spain, he commissioned one of President Jefferson and one of Secretary of State Madison. In both instances, these portraits were of the same sizes and companion portraits but not on the same canvas.


Questions: Did Jefferson choose to be shown with a column from the H or R? He didn’t visit, but did he know of the column’s design? (Anonymous Attendee)
                   Were all these details carefully thought out by Jefferson OR is it only now that we are interpreting the meaning? (Anonymous Attendee)

GW:  It is impossible to say how much Jefferson may have known of the design for the rebuilding of the House of Representatives. Certainly he discussed architecture with Thomas Sully during his visit to Monticello, as Jefferson requested that Sully visit the construction site for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where examples of his own architectural designs were going up. He wanted Sully to be prepared to report on his observations. And it is possible that Sully had visited the new House of Representatives, perhaps on his way to Monticello, and could have reported on that to Jefferson as well. But who suggested that the new House chamber serve as the backdrop for Jefferson’s portrait? Ultimately, the decision had to rest with Sully, as the final study and the full-length portrait were not completed until he returned to his studio in Philadelphia. Yet conversations with Jefferson could have influenced his decision. Jefferson always felt strongly that the House of Representatives served as the clearest voice of the people, and even though he did not serve there, a visual association could have been a welcome addition to his legacy. Whether the setting was a direct suggestion from Jefferson or an idea formulated by Sully on his own, visually it gives strength to the composition and adds another level of association for the viewer.