Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Thomas Jefferson Portrait

  • Thomas Jefferson, oil painting
This oil painting of Thomas Jefferson was copied from a contemporary portrait. Jefferson was the third president of the United States of America and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.
Related documents:
  • Declaration of Independence
    Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
  • Washington Letter to Jefferson
    George Washington Letter to Thomas Jefferson Concerning the Constitutional Convention, May 30, 1787
  • Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
    Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786
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Thomas Jefferson, oil painting

This portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Adams Elder was copied from a life portrait made by the artist Gilbert Stuart, who was the premier portraitist of the early republic. Born in Rhode Island in 1755, Stuart left America just before the Revolution. He began his career as a portraitist in England and Ireland before returning to the United States in 1793. Stuart was a prolific and successful painter, portraying many of the founding fathers, including George Washington whose Stuart portrait is used on the one dollar bill. Stuart died in 1828.

When Jefferson ran for the presidency in 1800 the general public did not know what he looked like. The public was curious to see this famous man, and in a time before movies or television, or even photography, paintings and printed drawings were the only way to view a person from afar. After his election that year, engravings of the new president were aggressively promoted by publishers. These engravings ranged from being very good likenesses to being essentially fakeries. About that time, several artists sought to paint Jefferson. Among other poses, Jefferson sat for Gilbert Stuart three times, once in 1800 and twice 1805. The only portrait that Jefferson received is known as the Edgehill portrait because it hung for generations in the Albemarle County home of that name where Jefferson's grandson resided.

Another Stuart portrait of Jefferson once belonged to Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge and now belongs to the National Portrait Gallery. Virginia painter John Adams Elder made this painting from the Coolidge portrait. In the late nineteenth century, the Secretary of the Commonwealth, as the General Librarian, was instructed to acquire portraits of famous figures in Virginia's history. In 1887 he purchased several portraits from John Adams Elder, including this portrait of Jefferson.

John Adams Elder is most famous for his depictions of Civil War scenes and soldiers. Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1833, he studied art in New York and Dussëldorf before returning to Virginia. After the Civil War he painted the portraits of many Virginians and Confederate officers, as well as genre pieces. Probably his best-known work, Appomattox, portrays a slumped-yet-resilient Confederate soldier. Elder died in Fredericksburg in 1895 after catching malaria in Mississippi while painting Jefferson Davis.

For Educators

Questions

1. Why did people want to see paintings of Thomas Jefferson in 1800?

2. What do you think Thomas Jefferson was thinking about when he posed for this portrait?

Further Discussion

1. How does this painting compare with the portrait of Richard Henry Lee? How about with the portrait of King George III?

Notes

The painting was copied by John A. Elder from an original by Gilbert Stuart. It was acquired by the Commonwealth of Virginia's art collection in 1887 in an effort to increase the number of portraits of famous and historical Virginians.

Suggested Reading

"First Impressions: Early Portraits of Thomas Jefferson." Virginia Cavalcade 42, no. 4, (Spring 1993): 172–176.

Coons, Margaret. "A Portrait of His Times: John Elder's Paintings Reflect People and Events during a Critical Time in Virginia History." Virginia Cavalcade 14, no. 4, (Spring 1967): 15–31.

Meschutt, David. "Gilbert Stuart's Portraits of Thomas Jefferson." American Art Journal 13, no. 1 (Winter 1981): 3–16.

Bernstein, Richard. Thomas Jefferson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Malone, Dumas. Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography. [Charlottesville]: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1993.