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Ariadne View Interactive Version ]

James Bowdoin (1782-1811) of Maine was appointed American Minister to Spain by President Jefferson in 1804. While in Europe, Bowdoin visited Paris where he saw an ancient sculpture of Ariadne, one of many works of art taken from Italy by Napoleon that were exhibited at the Louvre. In classical mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and assisted Theseus in getting out the labyrinth after he killed the Minotaur. Bowdoin wrote Jefferson,

Accident having thrown in my way a handsome piece of modern Sculpture, a Cleopatra copied and reduced from the ancient one now at Paris, which for many years lay at the Palace of Belvidere at Rome, as I think it for the fineness of its marble and the neatness of its workmanship and finishing, among the best of the modern pieces of Sculpture. . . . I was told it was purchased of a french commissary in Italy, who wanted money, and that it had been taken from the apartments in the vatican. . .1

Jefferson replied, "It shall be deposited [at Monticello] with the memorials of those worthies whose remembrance I feel a pride and comfort in consecrating there."2 Ariadne arrived at Monticello in 1805, but for ten years or so Jefferson thought, as Bowdoin did, that she was Cleopatra. Jefferson initially described the reclining sculpture in his "Catalogue of Paintings" as "A Cleopatra in marble." It wasn't until he turned to the appropriate page and illustration in his own copy of Augustine Legrand's Galeries des Antiques (1803), which he had acquired in December 1804, that he changed the attribution. Jefferson revised his description in the "Catalogue of Paintings," translating Legrand's comments into English.

Ariadne reclined on the ro[ck]s of Naxos, where Theseus had just abandoned her. She is represented asleep, as in the moment when Bacchus discovers and becomes enamoured of her. Her tunic is half loosed, her veil negligently thrown over her head. . . . On the upper part of her left arm is a bracelet in the form of the small serpent called Ophis: this bracelet taken for an asp, long occasioned the belief that this figure represented Cleopatra procuring death by the bite of this reptile.3

Jefferson also noted that the original sculpture was placed in the Belvedere Gallery at the Vatican by Julius II where it remained for three centuries.

After Jefferson's death Ariadne was shipped to Boston for sale there, but Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge decided to hold on to it. She wrote her mother, "I kept back the Ariadne . . . because I thought it a pity to sacrifice [it] as the others were sacrificed." 4

Artist/Maker Unknown
Object TypeArt and Sculpture
Dimensions27 x 13 1/2 x 37 1/2 in.
LocationEntrance Hall


  1. James Bowdoin to Thomas Jefferson, 25 March 1805, American Memory Project - The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to James Bowdoin, 27 April 1805, American Memory Project - The Thomas Jefferson Papers.
  3. Catalogue.
  4. Ellen Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 21 July 1833, Jefferson-Coolidge Family Collection.

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