When Thomas Jefferson was appointed United States minister to France in 1784, he took with him his eldest daughter Martha (called Patsy). Jefferson’s pleasure in his assignment to France was clouded by the recent death of his wife, Martha Wayles Skelton (September 6, 1782). To his official duties was now added the responsibility of raising three daughters. He took twelve-year-old Martha with him to Paris, leaving the two younger girls in the care of relatives.
They reached Paris on August 6, 1784, and Jefferson searched for permanent lodgings and for a suitable boarding school for Martha.1Howard C. Rice, Jr., Thomas Jefferson’s Paris (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 67. Only five months after their arrival came the sorrowful news that Jefferson’s two-year-old daughter, Lucy, had died. Martha’s surviving sister, Mary, was brought to Paris in 1787 and also was enrolled in boarding school. The demoiselles de Jefferson remained there until the spring of 1789, when their father was preparing to accompany them back to America and then return to France.
Joseph Boze probably painted this miniature portrait of Martha, now seventeen, at just that time, while Jefferson was waiting for a leave of absence to be granted. An inscription on paper mounted under glass on the reverse reads: “Mlle Martha Jefferson fille de Monsieur Thomas Jefferson Ministre Americain á Paris MDCCLXXXIX.” The watercolor and the inscription are mounted in a gilded copper case tooled with a floral motif. Martha is shown half-length, wearing a simple, high-waisted pale yellow dress trimmed with a small white ruffle collar and a blue waistband. Her eyes are large in relation to her mouth, but this may just be the artist’s convention. Her most striking feature is her light red hair, dressed in helmet-style, with side curls and ringlets falling over her forehead. Behind her, delicately painted, is a distant grove of trees and the sky, bluer toward the top to set off her hair and accentuate her blue eyes.
Joseph Boze had come from Martigues, near Marseilles, to Paris, where he studied with the great pastel portraitist Maurice Quentin de La Tour. Boze also painted portraits in this popular medium, and in watercolor for his highly regarded miniatures. He won the royal patronage of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, yet also painted Robespierre in 1791. He moved to England for a time, but returned to France to testify in favor of the queen at her trial, a bold action which earned him eleven months in prison. Since he survived until the Bourbon Restoration, he ended his career once more in royal favor.
Although Jefferson was granted his leave of absence in mid-June 1789, he only received the letter at the end of August. He and his daughters left Paris on September 25. Back home at Monticello, Martha was soon engaged; she was married on February 23, 1790, to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. Her father’s expectation of returning to his post in Paris was disappointed when President Washington appointed him secretary of state. Jefferson was never to return to Europe.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.