Thomas Jefferson, “The Edgehill Portrait” (1743–1826)

Thomas Jefferson in a black suit
Thomas Jefferson, “The Edgehill Portrait” 1743–1826 | Born Shadwell (now Albemarle County), Virginia | Third president, 1801–9 | Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) | Oil on wood panel, 1805/1821 | Owned jointly with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., Charlottesville, Virginia; purchase funds provided by the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, the Trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., and the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation  |  NPG.82.97

Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone notes, by his own instruction, that he authored the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia, and was responsible for Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. But it fails to mention that this philosopher, inventor, and scientist was also president of the United States. This does not mean that his administration lacked significance. During Jefferson’s presidency, the nation acquired from France the vast wilderness known as the Louisiana Purchase, successfully stood its ground against extortion attempts from Barbary Coast pirates in the Mediterranean, and reduced the national debt by 40 percent. These early successes, however, paled in comparison to the wrath later heaped on Jefferson in the wake of the economically disastrous trade embargo he imposed in response to British and French interference with U.S. shipping. A much-beleaguered Jefferson ended his presidency by calling it a best-forgotten “splendid misery.”

Gilbert Stuart was not only early America’s most admired portraitist but also an eccentric known for procrastinating. After sitting for his portrait in 1805, Jefferson waited sixteen years before it was finally delivered. Recent scholarship now indicates that Stuart created this replica from the original 1805 portrait.

  • How is the artist using light and shadow in this portrait? What do these convey?
  • Most paintings are made on a stretched canvas…this one is made on wood. What differences can you see?
  • Compare this portrait by Gilbert Stuart to Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of George Washington.  What similarities and differences do you see?  In what ways did Stuart convey the personalities of Washington and Jefferson?