Evidence for an Early Unidentified
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson

A portrait of Jefferson by Mather Brown that was purchased by John Adams and now is owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Private Collection / Peter Newark Pictures / The Bridgeman Art Library.)

In early 1786, Thomas Jefferson traveled from Paris to spend about six weeks visiting his friend and colleague John Adams in London. While there, Jefferson had his portrait painted by the American artist Mather Brown (1761-1831), who was working in London at the time.1 That canvas was later copied by Brown for Adams.

One of the two portraits (scholars debate which one2) was sent to Jefferson in Paris in August 1788, and the other was delivered to Adams. The portrait received by Adams descended in the Adams family and now is owned and displayed by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Most scholars who have studied the portraits of Jefferson have concluded that the first Brown canvas is the earliest known picture of him.3 However, analysis of correspondence and other documents from the period suggests that an earlier portrait of Jefferson existed.

References and notes

[1] Jefferson paid Mather Brown for the portrait one day before leaving London to return to Paris. He did not take the portrait with him—probably because it was not complete. Nor did he return to London for additional sittings with the artist, indicating that none were necessary.

[2] 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. 21-23.

[3] Ibid., p. 22.

[4] John Adams had recently learned that Tripoli's minister to England, Ambassador [Sidi Haji] Abdrahaman, was authorized to negotiate treaties with the Americans regarding tributes demanded from the United States and others by the Barbary powers for immunity from piracy. Adams had consequently begun meeting with Abdrahaman. In his letter to Jefferson, dated 21 February 1786, Adams stated: "There is nothing to be done in Europe, of half the Importance of this [the anti-piracy negotiations with the Barbary nations], and I dare not communicate to Congress what has passed without your Concurrence." Adams predicted: "…We shall be involved in a universal and horrible War with these Barbary States, which will continue for many Years, unless more is done immediately. I am so impressed and distressed with this affair that I will go to New York or to Algiers or first to one and then to the other, if you think it necessary, rather than it should not be brought to a Conclusion." Ultimately the dealings with Abdrahaman came to naught, principally because of the amount of tribute demanded—ten percent of which was to go to Abdrahaman himself. When asked by Jefferson and Adams why the Barbary states made war upon nations who had done them no injury, Abdrahaman said that the reason "…was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise." Despite this setback dealing with Abdrahaman, a separate prior effort by Jefferson and Adams was underway that ultimately paid off. In early September 1785, they had begun crafting documents to negotiate an anti-piracy treaty with the Emperor of Morocco. That work—the commencement of which may be depicted in the 1785 Delapierre portrait—culminated in a treaty with Morocco that was ratified by Congress on 18 July 1787 and is still in force today, making it the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history. (See Archibald Bolling Shepperson, John Paradise and Lucy Ludwell of London and Williamsburg, The Dietz Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1942, pp. 198-199; and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 9, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1954, pp. 285-288, 295, 325-327, 357-359, 448, 500; and Ibid., Volume 18, 1971, pp. 378-379.)

[5] 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.

[6] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 9, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1954, p. 325.

[7] Jefferson's Memorandum Books, Volume I, p. 623.

[8] Ibid., p. 623.

[9] Boyd, Volume 9, p. 437.

[10] Ibid., p. 451.

[11] Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 7, January 1786 – February 1787, edited by Margaret A. Hogan et al., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, p. 288.

[12] Charles Francis Adams statement to David Meschutt, 6 March 1981, as related in Meschutt's article, "The Adams-Jefferson Portrait Exchange," The American Art Journal, Volume XIV, Number 2, Spring 1982, p. 52.

[13] Fiske Kimball, "The Life Portraits of Jefferson and Their Replicas," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 88, June 1944, p. 501.

[14] Adams Family Correspondence, Volume 7, January 1786 – February 1787, edited by Margaret A. Hogan et al., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, p. 221.

[15] Ibid., p. 235.

[16] Boyd, Volume 10, 1954, p. 161.

[17] Ibid., p. 479.

[18] The New-York Packet, Thursday, 2 November 1786, No. 642, p. 2, column 3. See also Notes on American Artists: 1754-1820, Copied from advertisements appearing in the newspapers of the day, Compiled by the late William Kelby, Librarian of The New-York Historical Society, The New-York Historical Society, New York, 1922, p. 29. Interestingly, the article in The New-York Packet mentions the presence of a portrait of [John] Adams in Brown's London studio alongside the portrait of Thomas Jefferson. The research team suspects that this might be the "lost" portrait of Adams that was painted by Brown in July 1785 at the Adamses' residence in London and has since disappeared.

[19] Boyd, Volume 11, 1955, p. 169.

[20] Ibid., p. 502.  In this same letter, Abigail Adams stated: "The old Nurse whom you expected to have attended her [Polly], was sick and unable to come.  She has a Girl about 15 or 16 with her, the sister of the Servant [James Hemings] you have with you."  The "Girl" was 13- or 14-year-old Sally Hemings, the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife (Martha Wayles Skelton) and one of the few slaves at Monticello summoned to be at Martha's bedside when she died there on 6 September 1782.  Sally, who had last seen Jefferson when both were at Monticello in October 1783, almost certainly saw the portrait of Jefferson when it was shown to Polly by Abigail on 26 June 1787.  However, the research team has found no evidence confirming that Sally saw the portrait.  Were such evidence uncovered, the team would be interested in whether Sally recognized the subject as Jefferson, because Mather Brown's portrait of Jefferson was judged by Jefferson's contemporaries not to resemble him.

[21] Ibid., p. 502.

[22] Ibid., p. 514.

[23] Ibid., p. 531.

[24] Ibid., p. 551.

[25] Ibid., p. 592.

[26] Boyd, Volume 12, 1955, p. 207.

[27] Ibid., p. 297.

[28] A Mather Brown portrait of Thomas Paine is not mentioned in any known letter after the one dated 30 October 1787 from Trumbull to Jefferson, and apparently was never painted. However, in a letter to Jefferson dated 19 December 1788, Trumbull states that Jefferson soon will receive a box that contains "...a little case with two pictures, one of which I hope you will do me the honor to accept, and the other I beg you to be so good as offer to Miss [Martha] Jefferson..." (Boyd, Volume 14, 1958, pp. 364-365). Jefferson acknowledged receipt of the gifts in a reply to Trumbull dated 12 January 1789: "I am to thank you a thousand times for the [miniature] portrait of Mr. Paine, which is a perfect likeness, and to deliver you, for the other [a miniature portrait of Thomas Jefferson], on the part of my daughter [Martha] as many more..." (Boyd, Volume 14, 1958, pp. 440-441). So Trumbull apparently fulfilled Jefferson's request for a portrait of Paine by painting it himself and giving it to Jefferson.

[29] Boyd, Volume 12, p. 358. The "Polyplasiosmos" (later called "Polygraphic") was a device, invented by Joseph Booth, for "…multiplying or copying pictures in oil colours by a mechanical and chymical process."

[30] Ibid., p. 597.

[31] Ibid., p. 622.

[32] Ibid., p. 630.

[33] Ibid., p. 647.

[34] Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, Volume 3, edited by L.H. Butterfield et al., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961, pp. 212, 216.

[35] Ibid., p. 216.

[36] Boyd, Volume 13, 1956, p. 178.

[37] Ibid., p. 199.

[38] Ibid., p. 280.

[39] Ibid., p. 281. See also Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1967, p. 49, footnote 16. The Brown receipt, dated "July. 2d 1788" and endorsed by Trumbull, specified that 10 pounds was "paid by the Hands of Mr. Trumbull" and credited "To A Portrait of Mr. Adams" on behalf of "His Excellency Thos. Jefferson Dr[awn] to Mr. Brown."

[40] Boyd, Volume 13, 1956, p. 345.

[41] Ibid., p. 519.

[42] Ibid., p. 570.

[43] Ibid., p. 597.

[44] Boyd, Volume 14, 1958, p. 365.