Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 5



Auction Catalogue of Paintings from Thomas Jefferson’s Collection at Monticello for Sale in Boston, 1833 facing or following page 116[unavailable]

The Catalogue of ... Choice Pictures, Being the Collection of the late President Jefferson to be Sold at Auction on Friday, July 19, at Mr. Harding’s Gallery, School St. is of eight pages and lists paintings numbered one to fifty-six. However, some numbers in the sequence are omitted, and only forty-five items were actually included. The catalogue is by subject with most of the entries bearing notes of attribution, designation as originals or copies, and averrals relating to the circumstances of acquisition by Jefferson. These last belied the claim made for all in a foreword that “The Pictures which compose this collection, were purchased in Paris by Mr. Jefferson, while residing there as minister of the United States.” Of the forty-five paintings, thirteen were described as originals; the rest were entered as copies, as painted “after —,” or undescribed. By subject, twenty-four were biblical, twelve were portraits, five illustrated scenes from classical literature, and four were landscapes and the like.

Most of the paintings being offered were not new to Boston. The collection had apparently been removed from Monticello after Jefferson’s death and before the bulk of the furnishings and other personal property was sold at auction on the premises on 15 January xii1827. The decision for early sale or removal was made by Thomas Jefferson Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson and executor, who was faced with the necessity not only of meeting the indebtedness with which the estate was burdened but of protecting his mother and Jefferson’s heir, Martha Jefferson Randolph, against threats of seizure of her inheritance on behalf of creditors of her impecunious and debt-ridden husband, Thomas Mann Randolph (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Report of the Curator, 1960, Charlottesville, 1961, p. 12–13).

It appears that it was on the advice of Joseph Coolidge Jr., of Boston, son-in-law of Martha Jefferson Randolph, that Boston was selected as the most advantageous site for the sale of the paintings, though the collection seems to have been exhibited en route without success in New York City. In Boston, a large part of the collection was included in the Athenaeum Gallery Exhibition from May to August 1828 (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Report of the Curator, 1957, p. 6; Report of the Curator, 1965, p. 9; Mabel M. Swan. The Athenaeum Gallery, 1827–1873, Boston, 1940, p. 85–89). The Jefferson paintings shown at the Athenaeum numbered thirty-eight, and fourteen of the works listed in the 1833 Catalogue were omitted. All but two of those shown at the Athenaeum—the Stuart profile of Jefferson, now at the Fogg Art Museum (Alfred L. Bush, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville, 1962, p. 76), and the portrait of Madison attributed to Robert Edge Pirne—were for sale. At the close of the Exhibition only one sale, that to the Athenaeum of the Greuze portrait of Franklin for $200, is recorded. However, since seven of those shown at the Athenaeum, including the three already named, were not included in the 1833 sale, it seems likely that the four additional ones were sold during the intervening years, especially since six of the seven were among those listed as originals and seem among the choicest. The remainder of the collection remained in Joseph Coolidge’s custody to await a more favorable opportunity for disposition.

Five years passed before another public exhibition and sale was attempted. Even then the results were not good, the public’s reaction agreeing with that expressed by Charles Francis Adams that the paintings remaining “are poor enough in all conscience” (p. 128, below). Despite the brave assertion in the Catalogue that the pictures “have a value as works of art, distinct from that which they derive from their association with the names of their late distinguished owner and the venerable artist Trumbull, whose taste directed in making the selection” (p. 2), neither associational nor aesthetic claims were given much weight in the value assigned to the paintings at the sale. Bids of thirty-five, twenty, and fifteen dollars obtained the portraits of Locke, Columbus, and Bacon respectively; and the whole sale realized a “little more than $500” (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Report of the Curator, 1965, p. 10).

Although the importance of the paintings as Jeffersoniana did not immediaetly immediately affect their value in the market place, a sufficient number of the purchasers of the paintings attached significance to their earlier locus to make possible the construction at Monticello by the xiiiMemorial Foundation of a census of a substantial number of the dispersed works in the form of a “Paintings Locator File” (Report of the Curator, 1959, p. 9). A number of the paintings have found their way, some early some late, into institutional collections. Six from the 1833 sale, with two additional ones from the earlier Athenaeum exhibition, have been returned to Monticello where they now hang (Report of the Curator, 1959, p. 22–28; Report of the Curator, 1965, p. 8); three—the Columbus, the Lafayette, and the Wright portrait of Washington—hang at the Massachusetts Historical Society ( Proceedings , 2[1833–1855]: 16, 23, 25); the Mather Brown portrait of John Adams, along with the Franklin, is at the Boston Athenaeum (Andrew Oliver, Portraits of John and Abigail Adams, Cambridge, 1967, p. 49, 52).

Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.