Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Object Details

Thomas Sully (British, American, 1783-1872)
United States
North American
oil on canvas
Overall: 29 in x 18 in; 73.66 cm x 45.72 cm
Earle's Gallery, Philadelphia, 1830; to James Henry Hammond (1807-1864), of Columbia, South Carolina, later Governor of South Carolina (1842-1846); to his son, Edward Spann Hammond (b. 1834); to his son, James H. Hammond (b. 1885); to Daniel H. Farr Co., New York, by 1930; the same year to Edward Small Moore, (1881-1948), of Sheridan, Wyoming; to his son, Edward Small Moore, of New York; to the Brook and Snake Society, Yale University; to Graham Gallery, New York, in 1980; to the Fine Arts Committee through purchase
On the reverse, "Painted by T. Sully/ 1821/ TS" ("TS" in monogram) Notes: 1.Since the canvas has been relined, this inscription is presumed to have been copied (in facsimile) from the original canvas. See Kimball 1944, 529 n. 119.
Credit Line
Funds donated by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Thomson Couper, Jr.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

Precious in its small size, monumental in its dignity, this painting resulted from Thomas Sully’s visit to Thomas Jefferson in March 1821, where he “was an inmate of Monticello twelve days, and left the place with the greatest reluctance.” The sitting was at the request of the United States Military Academy at West Point, which had already commissioned Sully to paint a life-size, full-length portrait of Jefferson, under whose patronage the Academy was founded. Jefferson, citing the elderly Voltaire’s protest at having his portrait done, replied: “Mr. Sully, I fear . . . will consider the trouble of his journey and the employment of his fine pencil, as illy bestowed on an ottamy of 78. . . . I will conclude, however, that what remains is at your service and that of the pencil of Mr. Sully.”1William Dunlap, quoted by Bush, 91. Kimball 1944, 527. “Ottamy” deserves a note. It is Jefferson’s spelling of “otamy,” an obsolete and corrupt form of “atomy” (i.e. anatomy), denoting an anatomical preparation, especially a skeleton, or connoting an emaciated or withered living body, as in a “walking skeleton.” It was a long-established form, and Fenimore Cooper still used it in Pioneer in 1823: “His sides . . . looked just like an atomy, ribs and all;” but the word was sliding towards obsolescence and Jefferson was clearly using it in a jocular sense.

At Monticello, Sully executed a life-size, bust-length portrait. It was not highly finished since it was made as a model for West Point’s full-length portrait version. It is identical in pose and detail to the West Point portrait and to the Department of State’s painting.2Sully subsequently finished the bust-length in 1830, on a commission by William Short, for presentation to the American Philosophical Society, where this portrait still resides. Kimball 1944, 529.

Sully must also have taken with him the sketch for this small full-length work. As in the case of Sully’s portrait of James Monroe (see Acc. No. 69.49), there is an inscription on the reverse that includes a date, but it is at odds with the date recorded by Sully in his register. The inscription is not simply a later addition, but a later transcription of Sully’s original script onto the relined canvas (see n. 1.). The date given is 1821. In his register for the year 1822, however, Sully notes a “small whole length of Jefferson as a study,” 29 by 18 inches, begun March 27 and finished April 10. Two days later (April 12), Sully began the life-size full-length for West Point, which he finished on May 7.      

Sully’s inscription may simply commemorate the origin of the West Point portrait. Still, it is possible that a sketch was drawn with charcoal or brush directly onto the small canvas at Monticello. Sully would then have “begun” and finished the painting on the dates he recorded. His usual method of working up a full-length portrait was to make a study in oil, watercolor, or ink (perhaps not in the sitter’s presence) with the projected pose. There are two such for Jefferson—one that was rejected and another, sketchier, with the chosen pose.3For the former, see n. 10. The latter sketch was owned in 1962 by Hugh Murray Savage; a photograph is at the Frick Art Reference library (information kindly supplied by David Meschutt, Curator, West Point Museum Collections, in litteris, October 5, 1989). Some of the drawings suggesting full-length poses are remarkably mannered and were surely not done from life. An ink and watercolor invention for the portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette is a telling example (Fabian, 78, no. 36, illus.). But this was not a usual occasion and this small full-length is of such specificity, in the figure as well as the head, that it argues for a life drawing of the whole figure.

Jefferson’s stature (6 feet, 2 ½ inches) and noble posture in his youth and middle age are a matter of record. But in March 1821, the great man was a few weeks short of his seventy-eighth birthday. As early as 1811, he had reported “a long attack of rheumatism” and “a total prostration of the muscles of the back, hips and thighs [which] deprived me of the power of walking, and leaves it still in a very impaired state.” And in 1816, while professing good health, he wrote that he was “rather feeble to walk much.”4Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, August 17, 1811; and letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816; in Kock and Peden, 614–15 and 659. The somewhat stooped appearance in portraits is, therefore, to be expected.

Despite the greater monumentality—in every sense—of the large West Point portrait, the Department of State’s study is equally involved in the particulars of physique as well as character that vivify Sully’s full-length Jefferson and move the viewer. James Fenimore Cooper, not an admirer of Jefferson, went to see the large full-length at West Point, though he would “have gone twice as far to see the picture of almost any other man.” He was unprepared for its power:        

You will smile when I tell you its effects on myself. There was a dignity, a repose, I will go further, and say a loveliness, about this painting, that I never have seen in any other portrait. . . . I saw . . . Jefferson, standing before me, not in red breeches and slovenly attire, but a gentleman, appearing in all republican simplicity, with a grace and ease on the canvas, that to me seem unrivalled. It has really shaken my opinion of Jefferson as a man, if not as a politician; and when his image occurs to me now, it is in the simple robes of Sully . . . .5Bush, 92.

The “simple robes of Sully” was in fact a greatcoat trimmed with sable fur given to Jefferson by Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1798.6Haiman, 79. Kosciuszko had been given the fur by Czar Paul I who, in 1796 as one of his first official acts, freed the Polish hero after two years’ imprisonment in St. Petersburg. The inclusion of this coat was more than a sentimental gesture. It was Kosciuszko who had designed the impregnable fortress at West Point, and its fame was the reason for locating the Military Academy there. In this coat, Jefferson stands, not at Monticello or on the grounds of the University of Virginia, as has sometimes been imagined, but beside a column borrowed by the artist from the new House of Representatives. Though the column is abstracted from its larger setting, its source would have been unmistakable, and it is more potently symbolic.

Jefferson, the first President inaugurated in the new Capitol Building at Washington, was deeply involved in its construction: he was constantly in communication with Benjamin Latrobe and acutely aware of the symbolic significance of architecture in the new republic. Only members of the House of Representatives were then elected “by the people of the several states” and, in consequence, the House was the more truly republican branch of Congress. In Revolutionary and Federal America, the Roman Republic was often invoked in word and in image.        

When Latrobe “contemplated columns of the Doric order [for the House of Representatives], Jefferson ordered that Corinthian columns be used instead.”7Fairman 1927, 12. Corinthian was the Roman order par excellence, and here, as in the Capitol at Richmond, Jefferson insisted on the Roman reference, to evoke a republican form of government. He probably intervened as well in the Sully painting. In another portrait, a small watercolor study (which may have been meant to suggest Jefferson taking the oath of office), he appears against an exterior portico of the Tuscan order.8Kimball 1944, 529, illus. 530. The change of Corinthian order here supports the change of interpretative emphasis from Jefferson the President to Jefferson the Revolutionary founder of a republican order: in Sully’s painting he firmly grasps the Declaration of Independence.

William Kloss

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.