Missing Jefferson Portrait
Mentioned by Abigail Adams
Most scholars who have studied the portraits of Thomas Jefferson have concluded that the first known one was painted in London by the 24-year-old American artist Mather Brown in the spring of 1786, while Jefferson was visiting from Paris.1 (Jefferson was in London from 11 March2 3 through 26 April 1786.4) But recent analysis of letters and other documents suggests that an earlier portrait existed.
And in a letter to Jefferson dated 26 June 1787, Abigail again alluded to a portrait of him in their home. Referring to Jefferson's recently arrived young daughter (Polly) from America, Abigail said: "I shew [show] her your picture." 6
Because until now no earlier portrait of Jefferson was believed to exist, art historians have assumed that Abigail must have been referring to the 1786 Brown portrait in her letters to Jefferson.7 But analysis of Jefferson's correspondence and contemporary press reporting indicates that the 1786 Brown portrait of Jefferson was still in Brown's studio when Abigail wrote her letters, and consequently couldn't have been the one mentioned by her.8
Likewise, Brown's copy of his original portrait of Jefferson was not completed until sometime between 20 June 1788 and 15 August 1788—several months after the Adamses left England to return to America.9 So that portrait also couldn't have been the one mentioned by Abigail in her letters.
These observations suggest that a portrait of Jefferson other than either of the Brown portraits of him was possessed by the Adamses while they were in London—and that this portrait was completed prior to 23 July 1786, the date of Abigail's first letter.
Is the Delapierre Portrait the Missing Jefferson Portrait?
"Mirror-image" similarities between the 1785 Delapierre portrait and a Mather Brown portrait of John Adams received by Jefferson in 178810 suggest that Brown had access to the Delapierre work, making it a reasonable candidate for the missing portrait. Jefferson traveled to London and stayed with the Adamses shortly after the Delapierre painting was finished, and could have delivered it to them at that time.11
References and notes
 The 1786 Brown portrait of Jefferson—or a copy of that portrait Brown completed several years later (scholars debate this point)—descended in the family of John Adams and now is owned and displayed by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The version of the portrait that was received by Thomas Jefferson in September 1788 is now lost. (See: Alfred L. Bush, Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View…The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 20-23.)
 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 9, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1954, p. 325.
 Jefferson's Memorandum Books—Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826, Volume I, edited by James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997, p. 613.
 Ibid., p. 623.
 Boyd, Volume 10, 1954, p. 161; see also image in narrative above of passage from 23 July 1786 letter.
 Boyd, Volume 11, 1955, pp. 501-502; see also image in narrative above of passage from 26 June 1787 letter.
 Bush, p. 22.
 For a more detailed analysis of the correspondence and press reporting, see Evidence for an Early Unidentified Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
 For a description of correspondence on 20 June 1788, 11 July 1788 and 15 August 1788 that relates to Mather Brown's final work on his Jefferson portrait(s), see Evidence for an Early Unidentified Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
 For a detailed timeline of events during and after Jefferson's trip to London—and an explanation of the reason for the trip—see Evidence for an Early Unidentified Portrait of Thomas Jefferson. For a discussion of another painting transported from Paris to London by Jefferson on this trip, see Request for Painting: Why Was the Portrait Painted?