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The Day Jefferson Got Plastered

May 2024
4min read

The aged ex-President grew giddy and his family became alarmed as the mask-maker’s formula hardened around his venerable head

On October 15, 1825, there appeared at Monticello, the home of the venerable Thomas Jefferson, one John Henri Isaac Browere, sculptor and celebrity hunter. He had come, he announced, to make a likeness of Mr. Jefferson. Browere had already gained some degree of lame for his busts of well-known people. Not carved from wood or chiselled from marble, these busts were cast of plaster, in the European manner, from molds taken of the features of living subjects. He made the molds with a grout whose formula he himself had concocted and which he jealously guarded.

Critics were divided on the merits of Browere and his technique, some deriding him as a mere mechanic and calling his New York studio a “plaster factory.” But none could deny that his work achieved a stark realism uncommon in that day. His plaster busts showed the age-lined brow, the pock-marked face; his subjects appeared as they were, not as artists generally portrayed them. His life masks were, and remain, the most authentic likenesses of some historic figures who lived in a day before photography provided more easily obtained but similarly uncompromising portraits.

Before visiting Monticello, Browere had that same year made molds of the aged Marquis de Lafayette, of Mayor Philip Hone of New York, of Governor DeWitt Clinton, of Jacob Brown (then General in Chief of the Army), and of former President James Madison and his wife, Dolley. At the sculptor’s request, Madison had written Jelferson about Browere, recommending him in glowing terms. So the affable patriarch of Monticello, then eighty-two years old, was prepared for the New Yorker’s appearance. He looked over Browere’s testimonials while the sculptor bragged about his famous subjects. Then, after hearing Browere’s smooth assurances that the entire operation would last only twenty minutes, Jefferson assented to having a mold made. He told his apprehensive and protesting family, as one of them later related, that “he could not find it in his heart to refuse a man so trifling a favor, who had come so far.”

Jefferson and Browere retired to the east wing sunroom, and a slave, Burwell, removed his master’s coat and shirt while Browere closed the door against the chattering womenfolk.. In view of Jefferson’s age, Browere had intended to make the molds in separate stages, doing the neck and shoulders first, then the face, and finally the back of the head. At the last minute he changed his mind: why not, he thought, try molding the entire bust at once? Unaware of this decision, Jefferson had no idea what he was in for. Instead of twenty minutes, it took Browere an hour just to mold the neck and shoulders.

Next came the head itself. Browere had the frail octogenarian lie on a couch, stuck breathing straws in his nostrils, and applied a coating of oil to his face to keep the grout from sticking. Then, while the old man closed his eyes and wheezed through the straws, the sculptor rapidly brushed on layer after layer of thin, warm plaster. Speed was essential; the mixture had to harden before the composed subject could take on the expression of someone with straws in his nose and plaster on his face. Jefferson described his reactions in a letter to Madison three days later:

I was taken in by Browere. He said his operation would be of about 20 minutes and less unpleasant than Houdon’s method [poured-on plaster of Paris]. I submitted therefore without enquiry, but it was a bold experiment on his part on the health of an octogenary, worn down by sickness as well as age. Successive coats of thin grout plaistcrfed] on the naked head, and kept there an hour, would have been a severe trial of a young and hale person. He suffered the plaister also to get so dry that separation became difficult & even dangerous. He was obliged to use freely the mallet & chisel to break it into pieces and get off a piece at a time.

At this stage in the operation, Jefferson’s seventeenyear-old grandson, George Randolph, peeked in a window to see what was going on. What he saw was his grandfather sitting with his head encased in gray plaster, apparently struggling for breath, while the strange artist from New York attacked him, pounding him with a hammer and chisel. This nightmarish scene was too much for young George, and off he sprinted to tell his worried family that grandfather was being done in by an assassin.

With a few deft whacks, Browere separated the face and back of the mold. But the plaster was still clinging stubbornly to the old man’s ears when his daughter Martha (Mrs. Thomas Mann Randolph), with three enraged housemaids in tow, burst into the room fully expecting that the life mask had become, instead, a death mask. Accusations and epithets flew thick and fast from the would-be rescuers, who thought that only their arrival had averted a murder most foul. Poor Browere was totally bewildered, which caused, as he later wrote, “a protracted delay in the removal of other parts of the mold.”

As the remaining plaster grew harder and harder, Browere regained his equilibrium enough to resume his attack on it. Burwell supported his exhausted master and glowered at the sculptor as Browere thumped and pried, chipping away the grout bit by bit. “These thumps of the mallet would have been sensible almost to a loggerhead,” wrote Jefferson to Madison. “The good old man stood it like a hero,” wrote Browere, “yet could not altogether overcome the sensation of feeling faint.”

The frightened women refused to leave and their presence angered Browere, who admitted that because of them, “I had to pull the old gentleman’s ears a little.” The “old gentleman” put it less lightly in his letter to Madison: “There became real danger that the ears would separate from the head sooner than from the plaister.” Finally Browere freed the last bits of plaster. He washed Jefferson’s face while Burwell hurried for fresh clothes. The sculptor and slave then supported the gasping man to a couch in his study, where he rested for half an hour.

Meanwhile, grandson George had gone to Charlottesville and by now was telling a tale of horror to a crowd of wide-eyed townspeople: how Browere had almost suffocated his aged and beloved grandfather, assaulted him with a hammer and chisel, cut his scalp, and torn loose his ears. Soon newspapers took up the story; the Charlottesville Gazette reported that Jefferson had almost been suffocated, and that his arm had been broken by “this modern Gorgon, Mr. Browere, who regardless of Mr. J’s life, seems to have thought only of the trophy he was likely to carry off in the shape of the cast.”

Jefferson himself did not mention his displeasure to the artist; on the contrary, he invited Browere to stay for dinner and spend the night, and later he and the sculptor joked about the day’s misadventure. The two men stayed up late discussing a wide range of subjects, as Jefferson loved to do. Jefferson even presented Browere with a face cast of Lafayette done by the French sculptor Houdon to compare with the one Browere himself had done the previous summer.

The artist left Monticello the next day. From his mold, he later cast the head of Jefferson that survives today as a unique document from America’s past. Jefferson himself might well have agreed that the few hours suffered for such a legacy were worth it.

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