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The Case Of The Missing Portrait

July 2024
8min read

Thomas Jefferson paid Gilbert Stuart $100 for a portrait, then waited 21 years for delivery. A fire-blackened canvas discovered over a century later raises doubt that the original ever left the artist’s Boston studio

“Nobody, my darling, could call me a fussy man; But I do like a little bit of butter to my bread.”

Like A. A. Milne’s wistful king, Thomas Jefferson could be pardoned for feeling entitled to just a little consideration. The sage of Monticello, sometime inventor, author of the Declaration of Independence, former President of the United States, and purchaser of 828,000 square miles of Louisiana Territory, was experiencing the same kind of frustration that comes to king and commoner alike.

In 1800 Gilbert Stuart had painted Mr. Jefferson’s portrait. In 1805 he had done another. Mr. Stuart had been paid lor his first effort; but as of August 9, 1814, Thomas Jefferson had received neither portrait.

The former President reached lor pen and paper and addressed a letter to the artist in Boston.

“You wished to retain the portrait which you were so kind as to make of me,” he wrote, ”… until you should have time to have a print copied from it. This I believe has been done, at least I think I have seen one which appeared to have been taken from that portrait. Mr. Delaplaine of Philadelphia is now engaged in a work relating to the general history of America, and, wishing it to be accompanied with prints, has asked permission to have one taken from the same original, adapted to the size of his volume. I have therefore authorized him to ask for the portrait in your possession, to copy his print from it, and return it to me.”

If Mr. Jefferson thought this rather oblique approach would succeed, he was mistaken. Four years later he was trying another tack, this time through his iriend and former secretary of war, Henry Dearborn, in Boston. Somewhat testily, Jefferson asked Dearborn: “Can you without involving yourself in offense with Stewart [ sic ] obtain thro’ any channel a frank and explicit declaration on what ground he detains my portrait? in what term? And whether there is to be an end of it. I think he has now had it 10 or 12 years. I wrote him once respecting it, but he never noticed my letter.”

Less than three weeks later, Dearborn replied. “As there has been a much greater intimacy between my Son and Stewart [ sic ] than between Stewart & myself,” he wrote, “I requested my son to call on him and endeavor to obtain such frank & explicit information from him as you desire. An interview took place and alter many trifling excuses for the long detention of the portrait and its unfinished situation, he said that he could not linish it in cold weather but would certainly complete it in the Spring. We will endeavor to push him on. …”

Undoubtedly this came as something of a shock to a man who had waited, thus far, eighteen and thirteen years respectively for the delivery of either of two portraits, but there is no record of Jefferson’s reaction.

Spring came and went, and on June 24, 1819, Dearborn wrote once more to the gentleman at Monticello. “Having not yet been able to prevail on Stuart to finish your portrait I suspect that you have paid him in part or in full in advance if so I should like to know it, as I might in that case address his pride with some chance of success. If you have not made any advance and will authorize me to pay him as soon as he shall complete it I will address his poverty which is now great and by engaging to pay him and by frequent calls I should hope to succeed.”

This was too much. Jelferson must have replied almost as soon as he received Dearborn’s message, lor on July 5, 1819, he sent oil this firm note: “With respect to Mr. Stuart, it was in May, 1800 I got him to draw my pictire, and immediately after the last sitting I paid … him his price, one hundred dollars. He was yet to 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 me instead of the first, but begged permission to keep it until he could get an engraving from it.”

Again the months passed until on January 20, 1820, the disgusted Dearborn took pen in hand once more. “After frequent promises,” he reported to Jefferson, “Stuart has again forfeited his engagement to finish your Portrait. … Feeling a little out of patience I observed to him that I woidcl inform you that you must never expect to have it.” To this the slippery Stuart had replied that Jelferson had “paid him an hunched dollars for one that you [Jefferson] now have in your home … but that he received nothing for the one he now has. That he painted this for himself. That he had no commission from any one to paint it. I was loo much out of temper to say anything more to him and retired.”

If Dearborn was disgusted, Jefferson was jusl plain mad. On February r, he replied in the plainest possible language: “On the subject of Mr. Stewail and my portrait, he must have spoken without reflexion, when he supposed it in my possession and hanging in my hall. The peculiarities of his temper and ideas render him a difficult subject to handle. … With respect to the ist canvas portrait [the 1800 painting] I thought it a good one, and should have been content with it, had he not himself been dissatisfied with it, and still if he daises to deliver that instead of the and [the 1805 painting] if he will finish and deliver it I shall be satisfied.”

Possibly mistrusting his own temper, Dearborn sent his son around to Stuart’s studio a second time to see what the artist had to say. Apparently Jefferson’s remarks hit home, for the painter “now owns that he had been mistaken and that he has received one hundred dollars for the portrait, which you have not received and only wants to know whether you would prefer a common portrait or one of half the length of the Body, the former at $100, the latter $300.”

To this astonishing request, the former President replied with remarkable equanimity. Apologizing to Dearborn for the protracted negotiations he had had to undergo, Jefferson believed the end might be in sight at last. “We may now hope to close it,” he wrote, “by accepting one of the alternatives [Stuart] proposes. 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 than a half length as it will range better in the line of my other portraits not one of which is halllength.” Then, remembering the artist’s capacity for allowing mundane details to escape him, he added, “I have no doubt 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 than the second drawn at Washington. It will come safest by water addressed to the care of Capt. Bernard Peyton, Richmond.”

Finally Dearborn received a letter of acknowledgment from Monticello, dated August 17, 1821: “The portrait by Stuart was received in due time and good order, and claims, for this difficult acquisition, the thanks of the family.” So far as Dearborn was concerned, the matter was closed for good. But was this, after all, the end of the story?

History has a way of not touching most of us personally, even though we smile at an exchange of letters like this and delight in the knowledge that great men are also subject to tribulations. Hut to Orland Campbell, a New York portrait artist, the foregoing correspondence had considerable significance.

In 1937 Campbell had come into possession of a neglected portrait of Thomas Jefferson. His first thought was that it was the work of Gilbert Stuart, and after having it relined, cleaned, and repaired, he was convinced of it. But how to prove it? His brother Courtney became interested in the picture and began searching out the scattered documents which, with evidence provided by the painting itself, eventually led the Campbells to a far more important conclusion.

As an experienced portraitist himself, Campbell also believed that the picture had been painted from life, or, in other words, that it was not a copy of Stuart’s work. Examining the surface of the painting, Campbell detected several layers of paint and decided to have it X-rayed and photographed under infrared light. These tests showed immediately that there was, beneath the visible portrait, another likeness of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s letters indicated plainly that he had not received the 1800 painting, for which he had paid Stuart one hundred dollars. In 1805, when Stuart received a commission from fames Howdoin to paint a portrait of Jefferson, the artist found himself in a terrible dilemma. He could hardIv ask the President to sit for a new portrait when the first one had never been delivered to him. Nor could Stuart copy the 1800 painting, because Jefferson had aged considerably in those five years, and his appearance was further altered by the fact that he wore his hair differently.

Faced with these problems, Stuart told Jefferson that he was dissatisfied with the first portrait and asked for another sitting. Thereupon he simply corrected the 1800 picture by painting a new likeness right over it, on the same canvas. This was borne out by the X rays, which showed that the artist had painted out part of the face and superimposed another on it. And the outline of the subsurface portrait revealed by these X rays bore a marked resemblance to two English engravings made from the 1800 portrait—the only copies known to have been made of it.

If Campbell’s analysis was correct, the 1800 picture had disappeared from sight in 1805, at the moment Stuart painted a new likeness on top of it. This not only explained the fact that Jefferson never received it, but made clear why Stuart had been so reluctant when pressed to deliver it.

There was also a good explanation of why Stuart had not wanted to part with his 1805 study of Jefferson. In those days before photography it was common practice (and a sure source of income) for a portrait painter to execute a life study of a prominent man and then to make replicas of it for sale to as many other people as could be persuaded to buy one. Stuart, frequently in financial difficulty, referred to certain replicas as his “hundred-dollar bills,” because he could count on that amount for each one he turned out.

Re-examining the X rays of his portrait, Campbell could see evidence that the picture had undergone several costume changes—changes which Campbell could match up with known copies by Stuart and other artists. Obviously, if this picture had been Stuart’s original life study, or “master” painting, from which copies were made, it was the last thing in the world Stuart would want to part with.

Yet there was that 1821 letter of Jefferson’s, stating that the portrait had been received at Monticello. If the picture in Campbell’s possession was indeed both the 1800 and 1805 portraits, what had Stuart sent to Jefferson? With the permission of the owner, Campbell examined that painting carefully.

This was the famous Edgehill portrait, so named because it had been removed from Monticello after Jefferson’s death and taken to adjoining Edgehill, the home of his daughter Martha.

Two things about the Edgehill impressed Campbell. First, it was painted on a wood panel—and Jefferson, in a letter to Dearborn, had referred specifically to a “canvas portrait.” Second, the panel was so thinly painted over that the grain in the wood could be seen through it. In other words, this painting contained none of the costume changes discernible in Campbell’s own picture. To Campbell, this indicated that no other paintings had been copied from the Edgehill and that it was not, therefore, Stuart’s original life study.

Then there was the statement made in 1892 by Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Mrs. William B. Harrison. Asked about the portrait received at Monticello in 1821, Mrs. Harrison recalled her grandmother’s doubt that this could be the original life portrait, since the paint was wet when it arrived.

Campbell was convinced that he had the original life portrait of Jefferson, a painting that Stuart had retained to the bitter end. And there was something else which seemed to fit his puzzle. When Gilbert Stuart died in 1828 his possessions passed to Jane Stuart, his daughter. About 25 years later her studio burned to the ground, and the fate of its contents became a mystery.

Turning once more to the painting which had set him off on a twenty-year search, Campbell looked at the charred area at the back of the stretcher and mused that this portrait had done as good a job of speaking for itself as one might expect from an inanimate object.

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