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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson View Interactive Version ]

Before his first portrait taken in Philadelphia in May 1800 by Gilbert Stuart had been delivered, Jefferson sat again for the noted portraitist in his Washington studio shortly before June 7, 1805. Jefferson wrote that he sat for the second likeness upon Stuart's insistence.

"With respect to Mr. Stuart, it was in May, 1800 I got him to draw my picture, and immediately paid him his price, one hundred dollars. He was yet put the last hand on it, so it was left with him. When he came to Washington in 1805 he told me he was not satisfied with it, and therefore begged me to sit again, and he drew another which he was to deliver to me instead of the first, but begged permission to keep it until he could get an engraving from it."1

From the beginning Jefferson knew that it would be difficult to wrest a finished portrait from Stuart's studio. Of three portraits of Jefferson by Stuart, only the Medallion, a smaller grisaille profile, would be placed expeditiously in Jefferson's hands. Ultimately, it was to take Jefferson sixteen years and considerable effort to obtain the second, or Edgehill, portrait.2

In October 1818, more than thirteen years after the second portrait was made, Jefferson called on his old friend Henry Dearborn, the former Secretary of War, to obtain the portrait from Stuart. Dearborn informed Jefferson:

"An interview took place and after many trifling excuses for the long detention of the portrait and its unfinished situation, he said that he could not finish it, in cold weather but would certainly complete it in the Spring."3

The portrait was still undelivered in January 1820. Dearborn again pressed Stuart, who now remarkably said, "That he painted this for himself. That he had no commission from any one to paint it."4 Jefferson sent Stuart a letter that refreshed his memory of the situation, and Stuart agreed to provide either a common portrait or a half-length. Jefferson told Dearborn:

"I shall be perfectly content to receive the original he drew in Philadelphia in 1800, which was of the common size (that the painters call I believe a bust). It will suit me better in the line of my other portraits not one of which is half-length. I have no doubt that Mr. Stuart's justice will think me entitled to the original and not merely a copy. There was something pleasanter in the aspect of that portrait which I liked better than the second drawn at Washington."5

On August 17, 1821, Jefferson finally reported, "The portrait by Stuart was received in due time and good order and claims, for this difficult acquisition, the thanks of the family."6 Although Jefferson did not specify which portrait he received from Stuart, he was clearly pleased with the result. Whether or not it was the original 1800 life portrait, which Jefferson favored, or the 1805 portrait, or a work of 1821, is a matter of debate.

In any case what came to be known as the "Edgehill" portrait for its long association with the Jefferson Randolphs and their home, Edgehill, this portrait is one of Gilbert Stuart's best works and one of the most compelling portraits of Thomas Jefferson.


Artist/MakerGilbert Stuart
Created1805
Origin/PurchaseWashington, D.C.
Object TypeArt and Sculpture
Materialsoil on wood
Dimensions26 1/4 x 21 3/4 in.
LocationEntrance Hall

Footnotes

  1. Albert Ellery Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 19:271.
  2. An art historian, however, argues that Stuart lost the second portrait, and repainted it in 1821. See David Meschutt, Gilbert Stuart's Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, 13 (Winter 1981):2-16.
  3. Henry Dearborn to Thomas Jefferson, 16 November 1818, Library of Congress, cited in Fiske Kimball, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson and their Replicas, 88 (December 1944):514.
  4. Henry Dearborn to Thomas Jefferson, 20 January 1820, Library of Congress, cited in Jefferson PapersFiske Kimball, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson and their Replicas, 88 (December 1944):514.
  5. Henry Dearborn to Thomas Jefferson, 26 March 1820, Library of Congress, cited in Jefferson PapersFiske Kimball, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson and their Replicas, 88 (December 1944):516.
  6. Henry Dearborn to Thomas Jefferson, 17 August 1821, Library of Congress, cited in Jefferson PapersFiske Kimball, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson and their Replicas, 88 (December 1944):516.

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