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The Case Of The Missing Portrait
Thomas Jefferson paid Gilbert Stuart $100 for a portrait, then waited 21 years for delivery. A fire-blackened canvas discovered over a century later raises doubt that the original ever left the artist’s Boston studio
April 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 3
“Nobody, my darling, could call me a fussy man; But I do like a little bit of butter to my bread.”
Like A. A. Milne’s wistful king, Thomas Jefferson could be pardoned for feeling entitled to just a little consideration. The sage of Monticello, sometime inventor, author of the Declaration of Independence, former President of the United States, and purchaser of 828,000 square miles of Louisiana Territory, was experiencing the same kind of frustration that comes to king and commoner alike.
In 1800 Gilbert Stuart had painted Mr. Jefferson’s portrait. In 1805 he had done another. Mr. Stuart had been paid lor his first effort; but as of August 9, 1814, Thomas Jefferson had received neither portrait.
The former President reached lor pen and paper and addressed a letter to the artist in Boston.
“You wished to retain the portrait which you were so kind as to make of me,” he wrote, ”… until you should have time to have a print copied from it. This I believe has been done, at least I think I have seen one which appeared to have been taken from that portrait. Mr. Delaplaine of Philadelphia is now engaged in a work relating to the general history of America, and, wishing it to be accompanied with prints, has asked permission to have one taken from the same original, adapted to the size of his volume. I have therefore authorized him to ask for the portrait in your possession, to copy his print from it, and return it to me.”
If Mr. Jefferson thought this rather oblique approach would succeed, he was mistaken. Four years later he was trying another tack, this time through his iriend and former secretary of war, Henry Dearborn, in Boston. Somewhat testily, Jefferson asked Dearborn: “Can you without involving yourself in offense with Stewart [ sic ] obtain thro’ any channel a frank and explicit declaration on what ground he detains my portrait? in what term? And whether there is to be an end of it. I think he has now had it 10 or 12 years. I wrote him once respecting it, but he never noticed my letter.”
Less than three weeks later, Dearborn replied. “As there has been a much greater intimacy between my Son and Stewart [ sic ] than between Stewart & myself,” he wrote, “I requested my son to call on him and endeavor to obtain such frank & explicit information from him as you desire. An interview took place and alter many trifling excuses for the long detention of the portrait and its unfinished situation, he said that he could not linish it in cold weather but would certainly complete it in the Spring. We will endeavor to push him on. …”
Undoubtedly this came as something of a shock to a man who had waited, thus far, eighteen and thirteen years respectively for the delivery of either of two portraits, but there is no record of Jefferson’s reaction.
Spring came and went, and on June 24, 1819, Dearborn wrote once more to the gentleman at Monticello. “Having not yet been able to prevail on Stuart to finish your portrait I suspect that you have paid him in part or in full in advance if so I should like to know it, as I might in that case address his pride with some chance of success. If you have not made any advance and will authorize me to pay him as soon as he shall complete it I will address his poverty which is now great and by engaging to pay him and by frequent calls I should hope to succeed.”
This was too much. Jelferson must have replied almost as soon as he received Dearborn’s message, lor on July 5, 1819, he sent oil this firm note: “With respect to Mr. Stuart, it was in May, 1800 I got him to draw my pictire, and immediately after the last sitting I paid … him his price, one hundred dollars. He was yet to put the last hand on it, so it was left with him. When he came to Washington in 1805 he told me he was not satisfied with it, and therefore begged me to sit again, and he drew another which he was to deliver me instead of the first, but begged permission to keep it until he could get an engraving from it.”
Again the months passed until on January 20, 1820, the disgusted Dearborn took pen in hand once more. “After frequent promises,” he reported to Jefferson, “Stuart has again forfeited his engagement to finish your Portrait. … Feeling a little out of patience I observed to him that I woidcl inform you that you must never expect to have it.” To this the slippery Stuart had replied that Jelferson had “paid him an hunched dollars for one that you [Jefferson] now have in your home … but that he received nothing for the one he now has. That he painted this for himself. That he had no commission from any one to paint it. I was loo much out of temper to say anything more to him and retired.”