Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

Jefferson in a powdered wig and formal clothes
Thomas Jefferson 1743–1826 | Born Shadwell (now Albemarle County), Virginia | Mather Brown (1761–1831) | Oil on canvas, 1786 | Bequest of Charles Francis Adams | NPG.99.66

In 1780, Thomas Jefferson, governor of Virginia, received queries from the Marquis de Barbé, secretary of the French Legation, seeking information about the state. Jefferson, an inveterate observer of all phenomena, organized his notes and sent an elaborate response focusing on Virginia’s natural history—its minerals, vegetables, and animals. He was eager to refute the French naturalists, specifically the Comte de Buffon, who believed that animals degenerated in America. Jefferson sent out inquiries, requesting the heaviest weights of American specimens, "from the mouse to the mammoth." When he received numerous requests for copies of his response, Jefferson decided to print the work, but did not publish it until 1785, when he was minister to France. Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson’s only published book, became famous not only because of its author, but because, as his biographer Dumas Malone noted, it revealed a "man of most unusual and diverse talent."

The earliest known portrait of Jefferson, this likeness is one of two versions derived from sittings with artist Mather Brown in London in 1786, during Jefferson's tenure as American minister to France. This version sent to John Adams and was part of a portrait exchange between him and Jefferson that betokened their warm friendship.

  • Describe Jefferson’s hairstyle and his clothing. How might these elements help us determine the era and location in which the portrait was created?
  • Describe the objects you see. Why are they here, and what do they tell us about Jefferson?
  • What connections can be made between the figure of liberty in the background and Jefferson’s biography?
  • Compare and contrast this portrait to Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Jefferson.  How did Jefferson’s likeness change?  Why do you think so?