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The Aesthete

The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello

an exhibition at Monticello, Virginia,April 13–December 31, 1993

The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello

by Susan R. Stein
Abrams/The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 472 pp., $65.00

He built for himself at Monticello a château above contact with man.”

Henry Adams

The Jefferson of political myth was a radical populist. He walked to his inauguration after eating at his boarding house. He received diplomats in his slippers. He seated guests at the President’s House “pell-mell,” without regard to social rank.

But if he did not seat people according to their station, he kept a complex calendar of invitations, circulating guests through the mansion in the order of the offices they held. And, once seated, the guests were given dazzling service. According to one observant guest, Margaret Bayard Smith:

His maitre-d’hôtel had served in some of the first families abroad, and understood his business to perfection. The excellence and superior skill of his French cook was [sic] acknowledged by all who frequented his table, for never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines.1

Even the “dumb waiters” at guests’ elbows—private service trays—reflected a French fad, as did the reason Jefferson gave for their use. In the early days of the Revolution in Paris, it was best that servants hear as little as possible of their masters’conversation—a precaution as applicable at Monticello as at Jefferson’s lavish Paris hôtel. According to Mrs. Smith, Jefferson believed “that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversations at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive servers.”2

The executive mansion Jefferson presided over was as elegant as only he could make it—far more stylish and expensively furnished than the mansions of his two predecessors in the office. John Adams’s building still had outhouses as the only toilets. Jefferson was not forgoing luxury when he stayed at a boarding house rather than in the crudely furnished president’s mansion where Abigail Adams hung her laundry in the East Room. Adams had time to spend only $5,000 of the $15,000 allotted by Congress to the new house’s furnishing. Jefferson quickly applied for $14,000 to be added to the $10,000 left him. He used the agent for the president’s purchases, Thomas Claxton, to help him acquire luxury items that would end up at Monticello. Wherever Jefferson stayed, even for a brief time, he acquired the most refined furnishings available, often rebuilding rented houses to fit his requirements. This had been true of his elegant palace (hôtel) in Paris and of the four houses he used as a government official in America—two as vice-president (first in New York, then in Philadelphia), and two as secretary of state (one inside Philadelphia and one in the Pennsylvania countryside).

As a provincial who had always aspired to the latest European developments in art, Jefferson went on a buying spree in France that was staggering in its intensity. At times it must have looked as if he meant to take much of Paris back with him to his mountain “château.” The eighty-six large crates of goods he shipped to the United States included sixty-three oil paintings, seven busts by Houdon, fortyeight formal chairs, Sèvres table sculptures of biscuit, damask hangings, four full-length mirrors in gilt frames, four marble-topped tables, 120 porcelain plates, and numberless items of personal luxury. Though he was in Paris during the exciting early days of the French Revolution, he let nothing deter him from his treasure hunt. When a mob broke into his hôtel in the aftermath of the Bastille’s fall and made off with silver candlesticks, Jefferson sent a sketch of the missing pair to the painter John Trumbull in London, so he could get exact replacements made.

At the salons of aristocratic liberals, Jefferson was a dandy in striped linen and powdered wig, wearing a large topaz ring. (His predecessor, Franklin, had been known for his plain attire.) Madame de Tessé, a fellow devotee of classical antiquity, gave Jefferson a green-marble column for holding his bust (a use to which it was put at Monticello). The column was ringed with cherubs’ heads in relief and with the twelve signs of the zodiac. It bore this inscription (in Latin):

To the world’s great Governor, who favored at last North American liberties and will favor the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.3

Though Jefferson, as secretary of state, held diplomats to the constitutional ban on gifts from monarchs, he was ready to find excuses when the gift was an artifact he liked. He kept the large engraving given him by Louis XVI, though he had the diamonds removed from its frame in Paris and used to defray diplomatic costs. Later the engraving hung at Monticello, and was entered into Jefferson’s own inventory as “a present from the King to Th.J.”4 When, as president, Jefferson received, from the American consul general in Russia, a bust of Czar Alexander I, he wrote:

It will constitute one of the most valued ornaments of the retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home…. I had laid it down as a law for my conduct while in office, and hitherto scrupulously observed [he is forgetting the Louis XVI engraving], to accept no present beyond a book, a pamphlet, or other curiosity of minor value; as well to avoid imputation on my motives of action, as to shut out a practice susceptible of such abuse. But my particular esteem for the character of the Emperor, places his image in my mind above the scope of law.5

Another gift from his Paris days, a model of the great pyramid of Cheops, stood on the mantel in his entrance hall.

Jefferson brought with him from Paris some Sèvres work made for Louis XVI (it is unknown how he got it). He commissioned a fauteuil from Marie Antoinette’s own ébéniste. He was always on the alert for a new design. Sailing home from Paris, but intending to return immediately, he noticed in the captain’s room on the ship a table of unusual design. He commissioned the captain to have a replica made for him. As usual, expense was not to be reckoned: “The fitness of the mahogany to be more attended to than the price.” On reaching America, Jefferson was informed that Washington had appointed him secretary of state. He did not sail back, and the captain obviously thought the table was out of his mind. But he rarely gave up on a treasured item he wanted to possess. He spent years in the quest for a silver replica of a pot found at Pompeii (an askos). Some French art he brought home in the form of enhanced property. The “French chef” Margaret Smith praised at the White House was actually the slave James Hemings, whom Jefferson had apprenticed to his chef in France, so he could bring back that aspect of France sealed up, now, in his piece of living property.

The buying continued throughout his life. When a grandchild expressed an interest in an expensive English cittern, with the hope of learning to play the instrument, Jefferson surprised her with the present. He bought scientific instruments of a complexity and precision beyond his own uses. He continued to drink the finest wines imported to America. Yet all through these years of strenuous collecting he was, without any realistic hope of reversing the drift, going farther and farther into ineluctable debt. Only regard for his position kept him from losing Monticello to his creditors during his lifetime. He hoped a public lottery would save the house for his daughter. But he died over a hundred thousand dollars in debt. His daughter earned only a third of that by auctioning off his belongings—slaves and Sèvres china alike—except the house. That brought in only a third of what he owed. The empty shell of the house had to go, too. It was a last gesture to the bills of a man who owned rich treasures he never paid for or had a chance of paying for.

There is something eerie, then, about the great scholarly effort mounted by Susan R. Stein, Monticello’s curator of art, who has reassembled most of what is traceable from the auctioneer’s block that dispersed Monticello’s furnishings. To celebrate Jefferson’s 250th birthday, she has located and borrowed for this year roughly 150 artifacts out of the thousands that once adorned the mansion. The catalog to the exhibit gives not only the provenance of each item but a history of Jefferson’s acquisition and use of it, creating the best body of information we now have on his taste in china, fabrics, silver, painting, and sculpture. The book will be as valuable as the catalog of a 1976 exhibit, The Eye of Jefferson.6

When Stein undertook her heroic labor of recovery, she had a model of Monticello’s rooms built by the designer George Sexton, accurate to scale (an inch to the original’s foot), completely furnished with doll-house chairs, chandeliers, picture frames. Eye-level peepholes let one look at the room’s layout as if standing in it. As she tracked the house’s lost furnishings, from tax records, inventories, correspondence, descendants, she added facsimiles of them to the model, arranging them in their original sites (if they were known) or likely ones—or in a place demanded by the circumstances of the exhibit. Some of the lenders put restrictions on the way the item could be displayed. Some pieces found were considered too fragile to travel—at first, the Smithsonian Institution put Jefferson’s writing desk (on which he composed the Declaration of Independence) in that category.

In her search for the hundreds of paintings and engravings from Monticello’s walls, Mrs. Stein sent inquiries to over one thousand collecting institutions, family heirs, and known purchasers of Jefferson material. The results could be frustrating. One museum has a painting Jefferson once owned, but considers it not worth restoring. As such, it can be neither displayed in the museum nor lent out to others. From private collectors she retrieved such rarely seen things as Benjamin West’s pen-and-gouache sketch for a Hector’s Farewell (given Jefferson by General Kosciuszko) and John Trumbull’s oil sketch for his Surrender of Cornwallis.

The result of her labors is to restore Monticello to some of its original air of precious clutter. When all the goods from a lifetime of buying were stuffed into it, the house must have resembled the most crowded parts of John Soane’s famous museum-house in London. It is hard, even with the borrowed artifacts now on display, to imagine what it would have been like to pick one’s way through the jumble of Jefferson’s collected prizes. The items are on loan throughout the birthday year (1993), except for his writing desk, which the Smithsonian lent for only a month.

The entrance hall, for instance, famous now for the clock that never left the house, had in Jefferson’s time twenty-eight black Windsor chairs, for visitors who waited to be given an audience with some member of the resident family. Sometimes Jefferson called this “my Indian hall,” since it had painted buffalo robes on display, along with moccasins (six), head dress, bone whistle, warrior dress, two leather maps, and two pairs of garters. It was also a museum of natural history, with specimens from the Lewis and Clark (and other) expeditions—mastodon bones, minerals, mounted moose and elk antlers. It was also his hall of maps—eight large varnished maps on rollers, reporting on the entire globe. It was a statuary hall—his reclining Ariadne was placed on the floor before the fireplace. The green marble column with Madame de Tessé’s inscription held Ceracchi’s larger-than-life-size bust of Jefferson (one of the mansion’s thirteen images of himself). Facing it, across the doorway, was a much smaller bust of Alexander Hamilton. There were eight paintings and several large engravings hung over or among these instructive treasures.

  1. 1

    Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society, edited by Gaillard Hunt (Frederick Ungar, 1906), p. 391.

  2. 2

    Smith, The First Forty Years, p. 388.

  3. 3

    The history of the column is contained in the note to Jefferson’s letter thanking Madame de Tessé: Julian Boyd, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 15 (Princeton University Press, 1958), pp. 363–364. The Latin inscription read: ‘Summo rerum moderatori’ cui tandem Libertas Americae Septentrionalis curae fuit Cui in Posterum curae erit nomen Thomae Jefferson.

  4. 4

    For Jefferson’s tortuous justification of what Julian Boyd calls “the fiction, the attempt at concealment, and the disregard of the constitutional requirement” in this transaction, see Boyd, Papers, Vol. 16 (1961), pp. 356–368.

  5. 5

    Jefferson to Levett Harris, April 18, 1806 (Albert Ellery Bergh, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11, 1906, p. 101).

  6. 6

    The Eye of Jefferson, edited by William Howard Adams (University of Virginia Press, reprinted 1992).

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