J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jefferson or Not?

I recently came across the Is This Jefferson? website, devoted to making the case that a portrait apparently painted by Nicholas Benjamin Delapierre in 1785 shows Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to France.

As this press release acknowledges, no one is on record as thinking this is a painting of Jefferson until its current owner.

Delapierre painted an early printing of De la Caisse d’Escompte on the desk of the man in the portrait. That book was authored principally by Mirabeau, but the man obviously isn’t that jowly count. The book’s other authors included Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (who later settled in Delaware), and Étienne Clavière.

Jefferson knew all four men and admired their book. However, his own book, Notes on the State of Virginia, was published in Paris at the same time, and normally a painter would portray an author with his own work.

The website argues that letters from John Adams’s family hint at an early, previously unidentified Jefferson portrait. I think we can read those letters to indicate that the Adams family picked up Jefferson’s portrait from Boston native Mather Brown in 1786, liked it so much they wanted a copy, and therefore returned it to Brown’s studio for duplication before the end of the year.

Furthermore, I think the portrait looks a lot like Brissot, one of the authors of that book on the desk. The website compares this painting to later portraits of Jefferson, but doesn’t line both up against later portraits of Brissot. What do you think?


Jan said...

Though the unidentified sitter's eyes look darker than Brissot's, his nose and the shape formed by his cheekbones, mouth, and jaw look very similar to Brissot. The sitter's ears (usually one of the easiest and most reliable features to compare between one image and another) are hard to make out.

wranglerkate said...

I would never have thought this was a portrait of Jefferson.

Mr Punch said...

I don't think it looks much like Jefferson, and I agree it's the wrong book - in fact, wrong iconography in general. Could be Brissot - the subject looks pretty young, once you look past the hair. The website is, let's say, highly seculative IMHO.

John L Smith Jr said...

Didn't Tom Jefferson have a sort-of distinctive turned-up nose? The guy in the painting doesn't appear to have that feature for starters...

G. Lovely said...

I did a photoshop side-by-side of the eyes, nose, and lips of the portrait in question and Charles Wilson Peale's 1791 Jefferson portrait that hangs in the State Department. While there is a resemblence, the nose of the older Jefferson portrait is decidedly less bulbous, more 'bec-fin' than the supposedly younger one. Not something I've see happen to noses over time. I doubt anyone could ever prove it's not a painting of Jefferson, but I'm dubious.