Houdon Bust (Sculpture)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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1789 bust of Jefferson by Jean Antoine Houdon; Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Edward Owen; Gift of Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman
1789 bust of Jefferson by Jean Antoine Houdon; Image credit: Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Edward Owen; Gift of Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman

Of the many life portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Houdon's bust (1789) is the most well known. Recognized almost immediately for its portrayal of Jefferson as a sensitive, intellectual, aristocratic, and idealistic statesman, it is considered to be a superb likeness. With its strong brow softening above an almost knowing half-smile, it is strikingly expressive, capturing Jefferson in thought.

The portrait's vivid, deliberative character, which is accentuated by Jefferson's focus on a distant point, makes it both personal and elevated, a near perfect icon of the Author of the Declaration of American Independence. As a result, it has frequently served as the model for other images of Jefferson, including the 1801 Indian Peace Medal by John Reich and the modern United States Nickel.

Jefferson became acquainted with Houdon during his service as Minister to France (1784-1789) and quickly came to consider the French sculptor the finest of his day. In 1785, he arranged for Houdon to travel to the United States to portray George Washington, a trip that resulted in another great icon of the Revolution, the full-length statue of Washington now in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

Before leaving France, Jefferson acquired ten or twelve terra-cotta plaster busts by the artist of such American and French notables as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, the marquis de Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Voltaire, and Turgot, evidently to create a "gallery of worthies" at Monticello. In August 1789, shortly before departing for the United States, Jefferson sat for Houdon himself and brought back several plasters of his own bust, apparently to distribute among friends.

Houdon always worked from life. He would first model his sitter in terra cotta, a soft, unfired clay. From the unfired model, he would then make a more durable plaster cast. This cast could then be used to produce marble busts and more plasters. Many of the plasters were given terra cotta patinations, or coatings, to achieve rich surface tones.

This particular instance of Houdon's portrait is regarded as the finest of the six known early plasters and retains its original terra cotta patination. It is not one that Jefferson owned, however, as it still bears the seal of the French Royal Academy. It is very likely the one exhibited by Houdon in the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture's Salon of 1789. Having passed through several owners before coming to Monticello on loan in 1993, the bust became part of the permanent collection in 2001 through a generous gift from the Gilder Lehrman Collection of New York and its principals, Richard Gilder and Lewis E. Lehrman. The bust is on display in Monticello's Parlor.

A marble version of the Jefferson portrait is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Jefferson's own terra-cotta bust, which he may have displayed in his Cabinet, remains unlocated.

--Original author: Susan R. Stein, Monticello Curator, August 2002

Selected Sources

Thomas Jefferson Portal

More Images

Thomas Jefferson Digital Library

See Also

A small scale replica of the bust is available for purchase at the Monticello Gift Shop