Jefferson’s Paris

Jefferson was so intrigued by Maria Cosway that he canceled dinner with a duchess, telling a transparent lie about the weight of his diplomatic correspondence.

While Richard Cosway was painting the portraits of the Duc d’Orléans’s children, his wife accompanied Jefferson on his architectural tours. One of the country showplaces they visited was the Désert de Retz, a fantastical jardin anglo-chinois , with natural landscaping and twenty follies—imaginative architectural structures—in a variety of historical and exotic styles. Built in 1774 on the edge of the Forest of Marly, in the vicinity of the royal estates west of Paris, it was forgotten after its confiscation during the Revolution. But the garden has been restored over the last ten years, and now the public can see it between April and November. It was the most authentic setting used by the filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant when they filmed their new movie Jefferson in Paris .

When Jefferson and Cosway made their visit, in September 1786, the garden was famous as the site of the folly known as the Broken Column, a luxurious four-story country house concealed in the base of a colossal Tuscan pillar, whose cracked walls created the illusion of a ruin. With its hidden windows and skylights and irregular roofline, this architectural tour de force was one of the most outlandish follies in Europe, one whose sinister appearance inspired comparisons with the biblical tower of Babel.

Jefferson was enchanted by the boldness of this architectural conceit. “How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column,” he exclaimed later in a letter to Cosway. He was impressed as well by the ingenuity of the design. The column’s intricate plan of circles and ovals within a circle resembles his later floor plans for the rotunda at the University of Virginia and an unbuilt scheme for a legislative house. The design problem is the same: How to create gracefully proportioned rooms within a round building.

Whatever the architectural lessons Jefferson absorbed at the Désert de Retz, he recalled his excursion there with rapture: “How beautiful was every object! the Pont du Neuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the Machine of Marly, the terraces of Saint Germain, the chateaux, the gardens, the statues of Marly, the Pavilion of Louveciennes [all of these tourist attractions that we can still visit today]. … In the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!”

The Hôtel de la Marine on the Place de la Concorde was one of three modern fronts Jefferson recommended for the future architecture of Washington, D.C.

Closer to Paris, the couple toured the gardens and chØteau at Bagatelle, then famous for its experiments in the English gardening style. They examined the interior of the Gabriel mansion that Jefferson particularly admired, the Hôtel de la Marine, bordering the north side of the Place Louis XV (Place de la Concorde), next to the present Hôtel Grillon. The facade of this colossal mansion was one of the “fronts of modern buildings” that Jefferson recommended as models for the future architecture of Washington, D.C. He suggested to L’Enfant that it would be particularly appropriate for the President’s residence. The entire Place Louis XV ensemble, by the architect Gabriel, was the object of Jefferson’s keenest admiration, including its centerpiece, the equestrian statue of Louis XV.

Jefferson had been mulling over the design for a full-figure statue of George Washington by Houdon. Noting the scale of the Louis XV monument, he decided the Washington statue should be near life-size instead of colossal. It was a measure of Jefferson’s taste that he so well understood what we today would call the siting and scaling of a public sculpture, in this case a figure on a level plane, seen both at great distance and at close range. He grasped the apparent paradox that although the square it occupied was large, the statue was better for being small.

Jefferson’s collecting passions, particularly for books, took him to the Left Bank. There, on the Quai des Grands Augustins, were the booksellers from whom he did most of his buying. Near the Pont St.-Michel, his own book Notes on the State of Virginia was published in 1786, by the bookseller Barrois. Jefferson had brought the manuscript of this controversial work with him to Europe and put it in the hands of an English publisher. He then approved a French translation only because he feared it would otherwise be pirated. Curiously, the French translation preceded the London edition by a few months.