Jefferson’s Paris

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Paris is every day enlarging and beautifying,” Thomas Jefferson noted with satisfaction during his residence there as minister to France. The city under construction was a delight to Jefferson, the art patron and amateur architect. He had arrived in 1784, determined to commission the finest living artists to glorify the birth of the American republic. Lafayette, Washington, John Paul Jones, and other heroes of the Revolution were to be immortalized by David, or perhaps by Madame Vigée-Lebrun. The sculptor Houdon had already done a bust of Washington; now he was to execute a statue of the Commander in Chief influenced by the equestrian statue of Louis XV in the Place de la Concorde (then Place Louis XV)—“the best in the world” in Jefferson’s judgment.

 
Today’s visitor to Paris can follow Jefferson’s route down the Champs-Elysées and across the Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries gardens.

Jefferson’s ambitions for the new nation’s architecture were no less exalted. Although he came to Paris with a copy of his plans for a Virginia state capitol rolled under his arm, Jefferson was eager to learn more from European architecture, old and new. To that end he became an avid explorer of the Paris streets. He would take time every day to watch the construction of his favorite new building, the Hôtel de Salm (now the Palais de la Lôgion d’honneur). Like a man in love, Jefferson confessed, he could not keep his eyes off the site.

“I was violently smitten with the hôtel de Salm,” he wrote to his friend Madame de Tessé, “and used to go to the Tuileries almost daily to look at it. The loueseuse des chaises [the attendant who rented out seats on the public terrace] … never had the complaissance to place a chair there; so that sitting on the parapet, and twisting my neck around to see the object of my admiration, I generally left it with a torticollis [a stiff neck].”

In his architectural observations Jefferson’s tone is an endearing combination of self-mockery and the hyperbole with which he was often charged. He takes on the persona of a lovesick swain, helplessly in thrall to the charms of the latest building he has seen. In the south of France, he gazed at the Maison Carrée in Nîmes “like a lover at his mistress,” having made an arduous solitary carriage journey to see the Roman ruins.

The flesh-and-blood presence of the English artist Maria Cosway lent a romantic urgency to his tours in and around Paris. “How gay did the face of nature appear!” he wrote in a letter recalling his outings with her. “Hills, valleys, chateaux, gardens, rivers, every object wore its liveliest hue! Whence did they borrow it? From the presence of our charming companion.” In the less romantic company of John Adams, he visited the gardens of England and found them, like most things English, overpraised. It was the great regret of his one European sojourn that he did not venture as far as Rome, his mecca.

Jefferson was forty-one when he went to Paris. His wife, Martha, had died two years before, leaving him in a state of grief so acute that friends urged a change of scene. Jefferson accepted the post of trade minister to France under Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, charged with reducing French tariffs on tobacco, rice, and whale oil and negotiating with the Barbary pirates. When the seventy-nine-year-old Franklin soon decided to return home, Jefferson became ambassador, the occasion for a famous bit of Jeffersonian gallantry: To the question “‘It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?’ I generally answered ‘no one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.’” He stayed in Paris as ambassador long enough to watch the first months of the French Revolution, leaving in September 1789.

Ambassador Jefferson kept a coach and horses, but he had acquired the habit of walking as he went about his daily business. It began as a health regimen. Though six feet two, with the frame of a Virginia backwoods-man, Jefferson was in poor health during his first six months in Paris. Fevers and headaches confined him to his house for most of that winter. Downplaying his illness as the Paris “seasoning,” Jefferson embarked on a program of walking as his cure.

Today’s visitor to Paris can follow Jefferson’s route from his house on the rue de Berri, down the Champs-Elysées, and across the Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries gardens. The essential layouts of Jacques Ange Gabriel’s square and André Le Nôtre’s formal gardens are little altered. In the Place de la Concorde the equestrian statue of Louis XV was pulled down in 1792 and replaced by today’s politically neutral obelisk. The Palace of the Tuileries is gone, as well as the swing bridge Jefferson would have used to enter the gardens, then separated from the square by a moat. But the same horseshoe-shaped ramp leads up to the Terrasse du Bord de l’Eau. We can stand on this terrace, where Jefferson acquired his stiff neck, and look out over the Seine.