Museum  October 22, 2019  Chandra Noyes

The Complex Legacy of Thomas Jefferson on Display

Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

John Trumbull (American, 1756−1843), The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, 1832. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. Purchased by Daniel Wadsworth and members of the Atheneum Committee, 1844.3.

An American Renaissance man and one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson has shaped the very nature of our country. The primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson went on to serve as Governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.

Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

Mather Brown (American, 1761−1831), Thomas Jefferson, 1786. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; bequest of Charles Francis Adams; Frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee NPG.99.66

His genius for politics extended to architecture and design, and his Neo-Classical designs have come to define the early architectural style of the newly formed United States. Monticello, the Virginia State House and the University of Virginia, as well as other designs that weren’t realized, like his plans for the White House, embody the ideals of liberty and democracy that our young nation was founded on.

But those ideals didn’t always match up with Jefferson’s own practices. A new exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia examines Jefferson’s mixed legacy as a slave owner who expounded high ideals that he didn’t apply to his own life. Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals looks at Jefferson’s architectural influences and designs and contrasts them to the reality of how they were built: through slave labor.

Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

William Goodacre (English, 1803–1883), Capitol of Richmond, Virginia, 1830s. Engraving and watercolor on paper. Chrysler Museum of Art, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Tunstall.

Thomas Jefferson was born a British citizen in the Colony of Virginia in 1743, and by the time of his death in 1826, had helped to form a new nation. In addition to his many roles as statesman and diplomat, Jefferson was a lawyer, philosopher and planter, the owner of a plantation, who owned around 600 slaves throughout his lifetime. In addition to being a Founding Father, Jefferson is well-known for having fathered multiple children with Sally Hemings, a slave who was the mixed-race half-sister of his wife, Martha. The Chrysler Museum, through a partnership with the Palladio Museum in Vicenza, set out to examine how Jefferson’s buildings embody the contractions in his legacy.

Lorenzo Ceretta

Designed by Simone Baldissini. Constructed by Ivan Simonato. Model of Jefferson’s design for the President’s House competition (scale 1:66), 2015. Wood, resin, and tempera. PalladioMuseum, Vicenza.

Jefferson’s Neo-Classical style reflects a desire to return to the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome and was largely influenced by Renaissance master Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Palladio designed some of Italy’s greatest churches and palaces and is considered one of the most influential architects of all time. For this exhibition, the Palladio Museum has provided eleven models of Jefferson’s and Palladio’s buildings, showing how one inspired the other in both design and philosophy.

Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

Reproduction of John Plumbe Jr. (American, b. Wales, 1809–1857), Portrait of Isaac Jefferson (aka Isaac Granger), ca. 1847. Daguerreotype.
Tracy W. McGregor Library, Accession #2041, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va. MSS 2041.

While many books and exhibitions have stopped at admiring the elegant columns and domed atria of Jefferson’s buildings, the Chrysler exhibition goes beyond the finished product to examine how Jefferson’s buildings were constructed, detailing the lives and histories of the enslaved craftsmen who contributed to them. Examples of bricks, nails and other construction materials that were hand forged by slaves help us see beyond the facade of these great buildings to the uncomfortable truths that lie behind them.

An important addition to the much needed national trend of re-examining figures we have once revered as heroes, Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals gives us a fuller view of the man and his impact. Jefferson influenced our country in countless ways, through his political career and architectural and output. The impact he had on the human beings that he owned should also be considered in his legacy.

©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Nail-making materials excavated on Mulberry Row, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. Clockwise from top: nailrod, hammer head fragment, nails, hardy with nail inserted. Courtesy of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello.

On view through January 19, 2020, this exhibition gives those people a voice, and invites a more nuanced reading of a man whose democratic ideals weren’t always reflected by his actions. Through historical paintings, artifacts, and his own drawings, Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals presents a more complete biography of Jefferson.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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