- Historic Sites
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
Re-examining the X rays of his portrait, Campbell could see evidence that the picture had undergone several costume changes—changes which Campbell could match up with known copies by Stuart and other artists. Obviously, if this picture had been Stuart’s original life study, or “master” painting, from which copies were made, it was the last thing in the world Stuart would want to part with.
Yet there was that 1821 letter of Jefferson’s, stating that the portrait had been received at Monticello. If the picture in Campbell’s possession was indeed both the 1800 and 1805 portraits, what had Stuart sent to Jefferson? With the permission of the owner, Campbell examined that painting carefully.
This was the famous Edgehill portrait, so named because it had been removed from Monticello after Jefferson’s death and taken to adjoining Edgehill, the home of his daughter Martha.
Two things about the Edgehill impressed Campbell. First, it was painted on a wood panel—and Jefferson, in a letter to Dearborn, had referred specifically to a “canvas portrait.” Second, the panel was so thinly painted over that the grain in the wood could be seen through it. In other words, this painting contained none of the costume changes discernible in Campbell’s own picture. To Campbell, this indicated that no other paintings had been copied from the Edgehill and that it was not, therefore, Stuart’s original life study.
Then there was the statement made in 1892 by Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Mrs. William B. Harrison. Asked about the portrait received at Monticello in 1821, Mrs. Harrison recalled her grandmother’s doubt that this could be the original life portrait, since the paint was wet when it arrived.
Campbell was convinced that he had the original life portrait of Jefferson, a painting that Stuart had retained to the bitter end. And there was something else which seemed to fit his puzzle. When Gilbert Stuart died in 1828 his possessions passed to Jane Stuart, his daughter. About 25 years later her studio burned to the ground, and the fate of its contents became a mystery.
Turning once more to the painting which had set him off on a twenty-year search, Campbell looked at the charred area at the back of the stretcher and mused that this portrait had done as good a job of speaking for itself as one might expect from an inanimate object.