Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was born into the Virginia planter elite of colonial America. He graduated from the College of William and Mary and studied law in Williamsburg, where he was also a member of the House of Burgesses. A delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, when he was just 33 years old, and for more than three decades served his country. Returning to the Virginia legislature, he drafted a bill for religious freedom and in 1779 was elected governor. In 1783 he returned to Congress, where he helped develop plans for incorporating new lands ceded by Britain in the Treaty of Paris, called the Northwest Territory. His time there was brief, since Congress, recognizing the importance of commercial treaties, sent him to Paris on a diplomatic mission. While there Jefferson succeeded Benjamin Franklin and was appointed minister to France, where he witnessed the beginnings of the French Revolution.
In 1789 the newly inaugurated President George Washington called Jefferson home to make him the nation’s first secretary of state under the new Constitution, which had been ratified the previous year. Jefferson was shortly at odds with Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury whose economic policies aimed at consolidating national power and favored commercial interests over agriculture. When Britain and France went to war in 1793, Jefferson and Hamilton clashed again. While President Washington declared that the United States would remain neutral, Jefferson favored closer ties to France, which had supported the United States during the Revolution, while Hamilton favored Britain as the nation’s most important trading power. Tension within Washington’s cabinet prompted the emergence of early political parties, Jefferson’s allies as the Democratic-Republicans and Hamilton’s as the Federalists. In 1793, Jefferson resigned.
A candidate for president in 1796, Jefferson came in second and so—according to the constitutional arrangement of the time—served as President John Adams’s vice president. In 1800 Jefferson ran again and won. From 1801 to 1809, his two terms were marked by domestic accomplishments, notably the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million, which secured navigation rights on the Mississippi River and doubled the size of the country. The three-year Lewis and Clark Expedition mapped the new lands and brought back specimens of plants and animals that Jefferson delighted in. In foreign affairs, Jefferson sent U.S. warships to the Barbary States on the coast of North Africa to protect American ships from seizure and hostage-taking. But the president had little success in sustaining neutrality in the ongoing war between Britain and France. Both sides seized American ships and even its citizens and the 1807 Embargo Act, which sought to apply economic pressure by prohibiting trade with either, was a failure. It crippled the U.S. economy and left the nation ill-prepared for the war against Great Britain that began in 1812.
“I have a great desire to exert my abilities in this portrait,” wrote Peale while preparing to paint the secretary of state. Jefferson, only recently returned from five years in Paris as our minister to France, had settled into his new duties. The government was now established in Philadelphia, and Peale’s studio at his home at Third and Lombard was frequently visited by eminent Americans—many of them friends of the artist—who sat for their portraits at his request. Peale’s Museum (formally, The Philadelphia Museum) had already opened in exhibition rooms added to his studio that were lined with a growing collection of portraits (the Gallery of Great Men), as well as a rapidly expanding natural history collection—“a Repository for Natural Curiosities.”
In the spring of 1791 Peale conceived the idea of his museum becoming a national museum, and at just the time that he was painting the portrait of Jefferson, he was preparing to invite many prominent citizens, including Jefferson, to become “Visitors” (trustees) of the museum. They met in February 1792 and elected Jefferson as their president. Thus Peale’s portrait of the secretary of state is also that of the president of the Peale’s Museum. He could not have had a better ally in his ambition for a national museum.
Two versions of this portrait exist. The first belongs to the Independence National Historical Park Collection and hangs in the gallery now established in the former 2nd Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. It was painted in the small oval format (about 24–by–20 inches) Peale established for his museum and was there until the sale of the museum in 1854. Then it was purchased by the City of Philadelphia. It has been almost continuously exhibited from the day it was completed.1Despite its continuous exhibition history it was doubted by Fiske Kimball in 1944 (“The Life Portraits of Jefferson and Their Replicas,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 88 : 497–534) whose opinion was followed by Charles Coleman Sellers. The doubts were misplaced, as a 1952 restoration of the painting by Elizabeth Jones of the Fogg Art Museum, removing distorting overpainting by earlier restorers, stunningly revealed. See Alfred L. Bush, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 19–21. There are few portraits of Jefferson that predate Peale’s. He was in his forties and in Paris when he posed for a miniature likeness by John Trumbull (1787–88) and a marvelous bust by the great Jean-Antoine Houdon (1789). These are the best of the few surviving portraits of Jefferson from the 1780s. Peale’s superb 1791 portrait in Philadelphia is imbued with a sensitive freshness, a candor, a sense almost of observing Jefferson unaware, that is mesmerizing. The intellectual and physical vigor that Houdon emphasized is there as well, but there is an almost feminine gentleness of expression that makes one feel in the easy company of a friend—as indeed Peale was.
There is no question that the Philadelphia portrait is the life portrait, for we have Peale’s word that “my invariable rule is never to part with any original picture. Copies may be taken from them.”2Bush, Life Portraits, 19; C.W. Peale, diary of 1818, cited in a report on the painting by Anne Clapp (January 28, 1962). The striking, vivid portrait in the Collection retains the vitality of Peale’s original, and the appearance of the handsome red-haired, fair-skinned man in the glow of his maturity. Something has also changed. The eyes are alight, but staring rather than contemplative. The shirt ruffle, the neckcloth, and the illusion of space between the neckcloth and the jaw are all excellently painted, yet the jaw itself seems slightly rigid when compared to the life portrait. There is a tautness in the skin of the forehead and temple that translates as tenseness and is at odds with the ease of the original. The hair is soft and supple, but there is no atmosphere around it. The rather hard contours of head and torso are perhaps the result of an overpainted background. Such divergences may of course be found in a replica by an artist. They may also be found in a copy, and the well-established practice within the Peale family of replication and copying one another’s portraits might be considered.3Sarah Miriam Peale copied some of her uncle’s portraits. One suggestive comparison is her copy (ca. 1830) of Charles’s portrait of General Otho Holland Williams (1782). For CWP’s original, see Edgar P. Richardson et al., Charles Willson Peale and His World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982), 61; for Sarah’s copy, see Four Generations of Commissions: The Peale Collection of the Maryland Historical Society (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1975), 106, no. 87.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.