Jefferson’s Paris

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The view of the center of Paris displays the same landmarks he would have seen: from left to right, the bulk of the Louvre, the Ile de la Cité with Notre-Dame, the Pont Neuf, which was then being stripped of its houses, the Royal Mint, the dome of the Institut de France, the Pont Royal, and the Hôtel de Salm, the latter’s flags and roof visible to the right of the Musée d’Orsay.

The Palais de la Lôgion d’honneur, a reconstruction of the original Hôtel de Salm, damaged during the 1871 Commune, can be visited when its museum is open. Its grand entrance at the corner of the rue Solférino and the rue de Lille is an example of the purified classicism admired by Jefferson, who found most French classicism too removed from its Roman sources. He envied its builders the whiteness of their stone, although he worried how it would weather. At the back, which he would have studied from his spot across the Seine, is the domed pavilion, its reliefs survivors of the original exterior. The play of strong vertical lines against the curving top of the dome influenced his rebuilding of Monticello; that Virginia home is a legacy of his careful observation of the Paris mansion.

 
 
 

The decade before the French Revolution was a time of feverish investment and sumptuous building in Paris, and Jefferson arrived at the peak of the construction boom. Aristocratic properties were being subdivided to create the residential quarters of the Faubourg du Roule and Chaussée d’Antin, where Jefferson rented a stylish mansion. The Palais Royal had been expanded, and its gardens opened to the public. Construction was under way on the bridge at the Place de la Concorde and the churches of the Madeleine, the Panthéon, and St.-Sulpice. The guidebooks of the day document a profusion of new mansions, theaters, and private gardens, while the royal projects from earlier in the century—the Royal Mint, the Place de la Concorde, Claude Perrault’s east face of the Louvre—were still sights to dazzle the newcomer.

One of Jefferson’s most fateful Paris outings began as a visit to one such site. He met Maria Cosway on a tour of the celebrated dome of the Halle aux Bleds (the Grain Market) at the site of the present Bourse du Commerce at Les Halles. In August 1786 Jefferson had been invited by the American painter John Trumbull to view this four-year-old architectural marvel. Designed by Jacques Molinos and Jacques-Guillaume Legrand, the dome used a system of interlocking boards nicknamed “sticks and chips,” adapted from rural carpentry during the Renaissance. Jefferson was so intrigued by the flexibility and economy of this method, which provided large areas for windows, that he used it in several of his architectural schemes, including a proposed domed market hall for Richmond, Virginia.

Visiting Les Halles Park today, one can easily imagine the scene Jefferson and Cosway encountered in the quarter, which, with its eating places and restaurant supply shops, retains its marketlike atmosphere. This corner of the former Les Halles is still dominated by the magnificent Church of St.-Eustache, then about to be converted into the Revolution’s Temple of Agriculture. Next to the Bourse du Commerce stands one of the most moving remnants of Renaissance Paris. Jefferson and Cosway must have noticed the curious fluted tower, built by Catherine de Médicis as an observatory. Legend has it that the lady herself climbed the narrow stairs to the platform visible on top, where she watched the heavens in the company of her astrologer.

That day, Jefferson was so intrigued by Maria Cosway that he canceled his dinner engagement with the Duchesse de La Rochefoucauld, telling an uncharacteristic lie, and a transparent one at that, about the weight of his diplomatic correspondence. When their tour of the Halle aux Bleds was over, he proposed an excursion of his own, sweeping Cosway and her party off to dinner at the Palais Royal and then to a fireworks display. History will never cease speculating about the nature of Jefferson’s attachment to this delicate blonde beauty. An artist and musician of considerable talent, the twenty-seven-year-old Maria maintained a marriage of convenience to the wealthy artist Richard Cosway, a successful society miniaturist, well known as a libertine and commonly described as resembling a monkey. Although many writers have treated the Jefferson-Cosway triangle, the most convincing account of it appears in Max Byrd’s 1993 novel Jefferson , a psycholigically astute portrait of the man during these years.