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Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully
by Thomas Sully(1783 - 1872) 
Oil on canvas, 1856
Sight measurement
      Height: 28.5 inches  (72.4 cm)
      Width:  23.63 inches  (60 cm)
Unsigned
Cat. no. 31.00006.000
Sitter: Jefferson, Thomas

American artist Thomas Sully traveled to Monticello in March 1821 to capture a likeness of Thomas Jefferson. Sully was on commission to paint a portrait of Jefferson for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which Jefferson established while president. Jefferson lightly observed that Sully might find “the trouble of his journey and the employment of his fine pencil, as illy bestowed” on his elderly person. But Sully, after two weeks of sketching and painting the great man at Monticello, “left the place with the greatest reluctance.” [1]

The immediate result of that visit was a half-length oil painting (the torso not completed until 1830) of the former president that is one of Sully’s finest achievements. Sully subsequently sold the painting to William Short, Jefferson’s former secretary. Short, in turn, bequeathed the picture to the American Philosophical Society, a scientific organization that Jefferson had presided over from 1797 to 1814. This painting, in Philosophical Hall, Philadelphia, served as the study for the West Point commission–a full-length portrait, still owned by the Academy, which Sully finished the following year.

Sully painted two replicas of the half-length painting in 1856. Both are listed in a hand-written register of portraits created by Sully. No. 884 in the register was painted for the actor Edwin Forrest between December 6 and 11, and No. 885 was painted “for myself” (“second copy”) between December 11 and 29. No. 885, which remained in Sully’s possession during his lifetime, must be the one offered for sale to Congress in 1872 by the artist’s grandson, Garrett C. Neagle, for $300. The Joint Committee on the Library took no action, and after Sully’s death later that year Neagle raised his asking price to $500. The committee haggled, and the painting was acquired for $200 in 1874.

In 1856 Sully was in his seventies, which probably accounts for a noticeable hardness in the handling and harshness in the coloring of the Senate’s painting, characteristics not found in the original. Despite the loss of the artist’s youthful finesse, the replica retains the extraordinary dignity and repose of the original. The magisterial head, with prominent brow and large, deep-set eyes, is serenely poised above the torso. Jefferson is wearing a white shirt, a black coat, a glimpse of a bright crimson waistcoat, and a greatcoat trimmed with sable furs given to him by Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had received it from Czar Paul I on his release from prison in St. Petersburg. The waistcoat provides an effective note of color, repeated in the shadows above the eyelids. Behind the head, Sully has painted a vague sky effect with his favorite robin’s egg blue, mingled with tawny hues.

In several of Sully’s Jefferson portraits (though not the Senate version), the subject stands majestically beside a marble column from the U.S. House of Representatives. The symbolism is significant: Jefferson was closely involved in the construction of the new Capitol building, and he insisted that architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe use the Corinthian order for the new House Chamber. The president was keenly aware of the importance of evoking the Roman aesthetic and its association with a republican form of government.

Thomas Sully was the leading American portrait painter in the romantic style during the first half of the 19th century. He was born in England, moved to the United States with his family at the age of nine, and lived in both South Carolina and Virginia during his youth. Sully studied briefly with Gilbert Stuart in Boston and in 1808 took up permanent residence in Philadelphia. He later traveled to London, where he was influenced by the work of Benjamin West and Sir Thomas Lawrence. On his return to Philadelphia, Sully began a long and successful career painting the fashionable men and women of the day; he produced more than 2,000 portraits during his 70-year career.

One important replica by Sully of his half-length portrait of Jefferson–this one a bust-length likeness–was formerly owned by President James Monroe and is now on permanent loan to the University of Virginia from the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society. The location of another Jefferson portrait, once owned by the Marquis de Lafayette, is unknown. Sully’s likenesses of Jefferson became standard, and many later artists and engravers replicated them.

A painting of Andrew Jackson attributed to Thomas Sully is also in the Senate. In addition to his portraits, Sully created landscapes, history paintings, and fanciful compositions. He was a respected teacher, and his treatise on painting methods, Hints to Young Painters, was published posthumously.


1. Clement E. Conger and Mary K. Itsell, Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State (New York: Abrams, 1991), 416.


Father of the Declaration of Independence, the multi-talented Thomas Jefferson achieved perhaps his greatest renown as a political theorist and spokesman for democracy. He was born in what is now Albemarle County, Virginia, studied law, and was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767. He served in the Virginia house of burgesses from 1769 until it disbanded in 1774. Virginia sent Jefferson to the second Continental Congress, where he was elected to the committee charged with drafting a declaration of independence. Although he was assisted by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and others, Jefferson was the document's primary author.

Jefferson served in the Virginia state legislature from 1776 to 1779, and he was governor between 1779 and 1781. After the Revolutionary War, he carried out various assignments abroad, including serving as minister to France. When he returned home in 1789, he accepted the post of secretary of state in George Washington's first administration. Following a brief retirement from public service, Jefferson, representing the Republicans, ran for the presidency in 1796. According to the election rules of the day, he finished second to Federalist John Adams and, as a result, was designated the nation's second vice president. This outcome, in which the president and vice president represented opposing parties, would prove unique in U.S. history.

As vice president, Jefferson devised the Manual of Parliamentary Practice guidebook for the Senate's presiding officer that is still relevant today. Meanwhile, he prepared for a second run for the presidency in 1800. This time, he tied in electoral votes with his opponent, Aaron Burr. After 36 ballots, the House of Representatives chose Jefferson as the country's third president.

The most significant accomplishment of Thomas Jefferson's first administration was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States. Reelected triumphantly the following year, Jefferson spent much of his second term attempting to protect American rights against British and French interests by instituting a trade embargo, an effort that proved largely unsuccessful.

In 1809 he retired to his rural Virginia home, Monticello. There, he championed higher education by founding the University of Virginia, and pursued wide-ranging interests in the arts and sciences. Jefferson is considered one of the most versatile men of his age, one much respected for his significant contributions to political statesmanship and philosophy. He is also recognized for his scholarship and skill in architecture, music, botany, and agriculture. Jefferson's personal library was the foundation for the Library of Congress.