Americus Vespucius (Painting)

Artist/Maker: copy after an anonymous portrait in the Gioviana Collection of the Gallery of the Uffizi, Florence

Created: 1788

Origin/Purchase: Florence

Materials: oil on canvas

Dimensions: 60.5 x 48.1 (23 7/8 x 18 15/16 in.)

Owner: Massachusetts Historical Society

Location: Parlor

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by purchase to unidentified buyer at the Harding Gallery sale in 1833; in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society by 1838

Historical Notes: While in Paris, Jefferson wrote his friend Philip Mazzei in 1787 to obtain portraits of "American Vespucius, of Columbus, of Magellan and Cortez." He told Mazzei:

"I should wish extremely to obtain copies of the two first, and even of the two last also, if not too expensive. Painters of high reputation are either above copying, or ask extravagant prices. But there are always men of good talents, who being kept i obscurity by untoward circumstances, work cheap, and work well."[1]

Mazzei was successful, for on January 12, 1789, Jefferson advised John Trumbull that the pictures had arrived in Paris. "I was much gratified to receive yesterday from Italy the portraits of Columbus, Americus Vespuciu[s], Cortez, and Magellan. Observing by the list of the pictures in the gallery of the Grand duke at Florence that these were there, I sent to have them copied. They appear to be well done."[2]

Jefferson valued these works very highly. In 1814, Joseph Delaplaine, who was preparing Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters (1815-1816), asked Jefferson if he might borrow the portraits of Columbus and Vespucius.  Jefferson told him:

"While I resided at Paris, knowing that these portraits, and those of some early American worthies were in the gallery of Medicis at Florence, I took measures for engaging a good artist to take and send me copies of them. I considered it as even of some public concern that our country should not be without the portraits of its first discoverers. These copies have already run the risks of transportations from Florence to Paris, to Philadelphia, to Washington, and lastly to this place, where they are at length safely deposited...I think that these portraits ought not to be hazarded from their present deposit."[3]

Jefferson offered, however, to make the paintings available for copying, if Delaplaine were to send an artist to Monticello. Jefferson eventually loaned Delaplaine an engraving of Vespucius from one of his books. In 1816, Delaplaine commissioned Bass Otis to paint Jefferson for inclusion in his Repository.

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 132.

Primary Source References

1787 October 17. (Jefferson to Philip Mazzei). "‘Si trova [Amerigo Vespucci] parimente dipinto nella real Galleria, tra’ quadri del primo Corridore, e similmente nella Volta XXI. della medesima, tragli uomeni illustri in arme.’ Vita di Amerigo Vespucci. dal Bandini pa. lxviii.

Nella ‘tavola de’ ritratti del Museo dell’ illustriss. e eccellentiss. Sig. Cosimo Duca di Firenza e Siena’ al fine del libro Delle vita da’ pittori di Giorgio Vaseri, si trova queste parola. ‘Seconda fila della banda di Mezzo dè Huomini harvi. Amerigo Vespucci. Colombo Genovese. Ferdinando Magellanes. Ferdinando Cortese.’

By these passages it would seem that the pictures of Americus Vespucius, of Columbus, of Magellan and Cortez exist at Florence. I should wish extremely to obtain copies of the two first, and even of the two last also, if not too expensive. Painters of high reputation are either above copying, or ask extravagant prices. But there are always men of good talents, who being kept in obscurity by untoward circumstances, work cheap, and work well. Copies by such hands as these might probably be obtained at such prices as I would be willing to give. But how to find out those good hands, covered by the veil of obscurity? Can Mr. Mazzei put me on a method of knowing 1. whether these portraits still exist? 2. Whether permission can be obtained to copy them? 3. If a painter, such as above described, can be found? 4. What he would ask for half length copies, of the size of the life?."[4]

1788 February 2. (Jefferson to William Stephens Smith). "I have sent to Florence for those [portraits] of Columbus (if it exists) of Americus Vesputius, Magellan &c...."[5]

1789 January 18. (Jefferson to John Trumbull). "Those [portraits] of Columbus, Vespucius, Cortez, and Magellan are well done and cost a guinea and a half each. I do not expect as cheap work in England, tho’ I do not expect better."[6]

1809-1826. "The [Parlor] walls were hung with fine portraits in oil of Columbus, Americus Vespucius, Andrea Doria, Castrucio Castracani, Raleigh, Cortez..."[7]

1814 May 3. (Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine). "While I resided at Paris, knowing that these portraits, and those of some early American worthies were in the gallery of Medicis at Florence, I took measures for engaging a good artist to take and send me copies of them. I considered it as even of some public concern that our country should not be without the portraits of its first discoverers....Like public records, I make them free to be copied, but, being as originals in this country, they should not be exposed to the accidents of travelling post .... I wish them to be multiplied for safe preservation, and consider them as worthy a place in every collection."[8]

Further Sources

Footnotes

  • 1. Jefferson to Mazzei, Paris, January 12, 1789, in PTJ, 12:245.
  • 2. Jefferson to Trumbull, Paris, January 12, 1789, in ibid., 14:440. Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  • 3. Jefferson to Delaplaine, Monticello, May 3, 1814, in L&B, 14:132-33. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  • 4. PTJ, 12:245.  Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  • 5. Ibid., 12:558. Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  • 6. Ibid., 14:467-68. Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  • 7. Randall, Life of Thomas Jefferson, 3:337.  This description was probably provided to Randall by one of Jefferson's family members.
  • 8. L&B, 14:132-33. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress.

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