Christopher Columbus (Painting)

Detail from a copy of a portrait of Columbus

Artist/Maker: copy by Giuseppe Calendi (active c. 1800) 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: 61.2 x 47.2 (24 1/8 x 18 9/16 in.)

Owner: New-York Historical Society

Location: Parlor

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by purchase to Israel Thorndike at the Harding Gallery sale in 1833; by gift with Jefferson's portrait of Washington to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1835.

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]

c1789. (List of Paintings). "Columbus from originals in the gallery of Medicis in Florence."[6]

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."[7]

1809-1815. (List of Paintings). "24. Christopher Columbus Copied from Originals in the gallery of Medicis, for Th:J."[8]

1809-1826. "The [Parlor] walls were hung with fine portraits in oil of Columbus, Americus Vespucius, Andrea Doria, Castrucio Castracani, Raleigh, Cortez..."[9]

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."[10]

1814 August 9. (Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine). "Between the 4th and 5th parts of the great work of De Bry. is a print of Columbus, and an account of it which should give it some authority. It is very small, and not very much resembling my copy of his portrait from the Florentine gallery. De Bryfs book is very rare and very expensive. Yet probably it may be in some of the libraries of Philadelphia, perhaps the Loganian. If not, Mr. Wood, if he comes on to copy my Columbus, may copy this print also from my Debry. Both may be worth inserting in your work Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished American Characters. DeBry says his was given to him by the painter who drew the portrait of Columbus."[11] 

1814 August 28. (Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine). "I have not the book of Munoz containing the print of Columbus....I have no doubt that entire credit is to be given to the account of the print rendered by him in the extract from his work which you have sent me [Note: TJ collates translations and explains the account for Delaplaine] .... I have taken from the second volume of Debry a rough model of the leaf on which is the print he has given of Columbus and his preface. It gives the exact size and outline of the print which, with a part of the preface, is on the first page of the leaf, and the rest on the second. I have extracted from it what related to the print, which you will perceive could not be cut out without a great mutilation of the book....We have, then, three likenesses of Columbus from which a choice is to be made. 1. The print in Munozfs work, from a copy of Rinconts original, taken in the 17th century by an indifferent hand, with conjectural alterations suggested by the verbal description of the younger Columbus of the countenance of his father. 2. The miniature of Debry, from a copy taken in the sixteenth century from the portrait made by order of the king and queen, probably that of Rincon. 3. The copy in my possession of the size of life, taken for me from the original, which is in the gallery of Florence. I say from an original, because it is well known that in collections of any note, and that of Florence is the first in the world, no copy is ever admitted; and an original existing in Genoa would readily be obtained for a royal collection in Florence. Vasari, in his lives of the painters, names this portrait in his catalogue of the paintings in that gallery, but does not say by whom it was made. It has the aspect of a man of thirty-five, still smooth-faced and in the vigor of life, which would place its date about 1477, fifteen years earlier than that of Rincon. Accordingly, in the miniature of Debry, the face appears more furrowed by time. On the whole, I should have no hesitation at giving this the preference over the conjectural one of Munoz, and the miniature of Debry."[12]

1815 February 7. (George Ticknor). "Here [Parlor] are the best pictures of the collection. Over the fireplace is the Laughing and Weeping Philosophers, dividing the world between them; on its right,.the earliest navigators to America,--Columbus ... etc., copied, Mr. Jefferson said, from originals in the Florence Gallery."[13]

1816 May 11. (Joseph Delaplaine to Jefferson). "I take the liberty of enclosing a head of Columbus which be pleased to do me the favor to accept."[14]

1816 May 20. (Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine). "Yours of the 11th is just received, and with it the head of Columbus for which accept my thanks. It has been evidently taken at an earlier period of his life than that of the Florentine gallery which I think you will deem worthy of taking additionally."[15]

1823 April 11. (Jefferson to George Erving). "Mr. Madison, a few days ago, presented me, in your name, a case of bronze medals (including one of Columbus), for which I pray you to accept my best thanks. I shall place them in our University, as soon as it is ready as a deposit in which, more probably than elsewhere, they will be preserved longer to eternize the memory and effigies of men who have deserved well of all mankind. The fruits of their labors are now in growth."[16]

1826. (Cornelia Randolph floor plan of Monticello). "a....Columbus located on south wall of Parlor."[17]

1827? (Martha Jefferson Randolph to Thomas Jefferson Randolph). "Christopher Columbus. In a list of paintings to be sent to Boston for sale."[18]

1828. "302. Christopher Columbus, copied from the original in the Florence Gallery."[19]

1828 May 28. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I went the other afternoon to the Gallery of the Athæneum, where it made my heart swell to see so many of my old friends the paintings from Monticello. they had been new-varnished & Jones had done his best to set them off, but they are evidently in a state of decay & ruin, which must prevent their bringing any thing like what was expected. they have been valued by three different persons, two estimating them at what they considered them as [. . .] worth, & a third at what they are likely to bring. the valuation struck me as very low except for one or two pieces. ... Cortez, Vespatius & Magellan are set put down at as, the same about equal in value by the three gentlemen, who however differ in their estimates, giving $ 75. 35. & 20. Christopher Columbus $ 75. $ 35. $ 30."[20]

1833 July 21. (Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Martha Jefferson Randolph). "I write to inform you of the sale of the pictures which took place a few days ago...the head of Columbus went for $20."[21]

Further Sources

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