The bust of Thomas Jefferson was one of the first executed for the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection. The commission, authorized under a Senate resolution of May 13, 1886, was awarded to sculptor Moses Ezekiel. Ezekiel was in Rome when he received the first of several letters from Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark, requesting a proposal for a bust of Jefferson. Clark first wrote to Ezekiel on May 24, 1886, and the sculptor responded with an offer on June 6, on the assumption that he was being commissioned for more than one work. Clark corrected him in a letter of June 23, which also included the approximate dimensions desired for the Jefferson bust. Ezekiel accepted the commission on July 21, stated his usual fee, but candidly concluded, “I will leave the matter of price with you and be satisfied. . .as I would like to have the commission, having at present no work on hand and needing it.” The commission was confirmed on August 2, and just over two years later, on September 12, 1888, Ezekiel announced that he had completed the bust, which “will I hope give you perfect satisfaction.” The bust was shipped from Italy in January 1889, then transferred by railroad from New York by March 23, and received at the Capitol soon afterward.
Like other sculptors then engaged in carving portraits of deceased vice presidents for the Senate’s Vice Presidential Bust Collection, Ezekiel needed a model, an earlier portrait on which to base his likeness. If, as has been suggested, he derived the features from those of the full-length statue of Jefferson by Pierre Jean David d’Angers, presented to the United States in 1834 by Uriah P. Levy, it is not known when he could have seen it. Ezekiel was living in Rome and did not return during the period of this commission.
Despite the uncertainty about Ezekiel’s model, the work does resemble the David d’Angers statue, but with an odd, compressed appearance. Here, Jefferson looks a bit like a handsome, genial young clergyman. The long neck is factually accurate, the wavy hair more carefully coiffed than in some other portraits. The recessive, pushed-back shoulders probably were meant to suggest that the great statesman was clasping his hands behind his back. (It is also possible that the block of marble at Ezekiel’s disposal was too small to accommodate broader shoulders or upper arms.) The steeply vertical coat lapels emphasize the long, slender torso of the tall, lanky Jefferson.
The bust is very competently carved, demonstrating why the now-neglected Ezekiel was honored and respected in his day. There is fluency to both the modeling and the carving. The sense of the body beneath the coat and vest; the crisp clarity of buttons and creases, of lacy shirtfront and cravat; and the organic rhythms of the hair achieved only with the chisel, not the drill, all attest to a decisive skill.
Sir Moses Ezekiel was one of America’s most prolific late 19th-century sculptors. He was born in Virginia, served in the Civil War, then studied in Cincinnati and later in Berlin, where he became the first American to receive the prestigious Prix de Rome, for his bas-relief Israel. Knighted by the Italian government, the artist established a lifelong studio in Rome (in a section of the ancient Baths of Diocletian), yet retained his American citizenship and a studio in Cincinnati. In 1879 William W. Corcoran commissioned Ezekiel to design statues of great artists and sculptors to fill 11 niches in the facade of the original Corcoran Gallery of Art (now the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery) in Washington, D.C. Today many of these sculptures are displayed at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens in Virginia. Other full-length Ezekiel statues of Jefferson are found at the University of Virginia and at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Ezekiel’s Confederate Memorial
is located at Arlington National Cemetery; his bronze statue of Edgar Allan Poe–-often considered his finest portrait statue–-can be seen at the University of Baltimore’s Law School; and his Religious Liberty, commissioned by the Independent Order of B’nai B’rith for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, now stands on the grounds of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. The artist received honorary titles from three European countries.