In October 1825, artist John Browere came to Monticello to cast a life mask of Thomas Jefferson. What transpired was written about by members of the Jefferson-Randolph family, members of Monticello’s enslaved community, and was even published in national newspapers.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation, from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
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Olivia Brown: On September 13, 1825, John Henri Isaac Browere wrote to Thomas Jefferson. He said, "If the Love of Liberty, still predominates in your venerable breast, which we doubt not; and, if an Equal desire of advancing the Fine Arts in the Western World fill your heart - it is to be hoped that our late, venerable, & beloved Pres[...] Thomas Jefferson, will bear coincidence with General Lafayette, President Adams &c, and permit me to call at his place of Residence as soon as possible and take a cast of his features. We truly, know of no higher or greater gratification, the American People would feel then at seeing a perfect fac-similie of our esteemed friend & Benefactor President Jefferson!"
Browere, an artist from New York City, wanted to take a cast of Thomas Jefferson's face while he was still alive, but what resulted was a life mask that nearly became a death mask.
With a letter of introduction from James Madison who had recently sat for his own life mask, Browere arrived at Monticello on October 15, 1825. Madison wrote to Jefferson, "Mr Browere... is so anxious to pay his respects to you that I cannot refuse him a line of introduction," and he continued by describing Browere's success as an artist as "highly attested." Browere was seemingly so anxious because he was trying to collect as many likenesses of distinguished American figures as possible for exhibition. Likely knowing he was nearing the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson could ensure his inclusion in such an exhibit next to the other greats of the Revolutionary Era if he were to agree to sit for Browere's casting. Today, most, if not all, of those busts are in the collection of the New York Historical Society.
The process that took place included Browere laying a mixture of grout and plaster onto the face of an 82-year-old Thomas Jefferson, neither an easy task for artist nor subject. While life masks were commonly made in Europe, the procedure was mostly unused in the United States until Browere. Prior to layering the plaster, Browere prepared his subjects by oiling their skin, eyebrows, and hair; placing straws in their nostrils to help them breathe, and then warming the grout mixture to make it more pliable for application. The specific grout and plaster mixture he used was of his own invention, and he had spent time developing a substance that would produce a more realistic mask than previous ones made solely out of plaster of Paris.
The resulting mask and bust that came out of it only showed Jefferson's face and parts of his upper body - clothing and hair were added on later by Browere as the artist. The bust shows Jefferson with a stern look, lips thin and in a slight frown, brow furrowed. He had surprisingly few wrinkles for being 82 years old, though this could be because of the material used to make the cast. One thing the mask itself does not indicate, however, is any real sense of fear or distress, which clearly was part of its making.
In a letter three days after the ordeal, Jefferson wrote back to Madison on October 18, 1825, about his experience sitting for John Browere. He said,
"I was taken in by Browere. he said his operation would be of about 20. minutes and less unpleasant than Houdon's method. I submitted therefore without enquiry but it was a bold experiment on his part on the health of an Octogenary, worn down by sickness as well as age. successive coats of thin grout plaistered on the naked head, and kept there an hour, would have been a severe trial of a young and hale person. he suffered the plaister also to get so dry that separation became difficult & even dangerous. he was obliged to use freely the mallet & chisel to break it into pieces and get off a piece at a time. these thumps of the mallet would have been sensible almost to a loggerhead. the family became alarmed, and he confused, till I was quite exhausted, and there became a real danger that the ears would separate from the head sooner than from the plaister. I now bid adieu for ever to busts & even portraits."
This recollection by Jefferson may not capture the extent of the event. In a letter the next day to her sister Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Jefferson Randolph Trist wrote, "a vile plaisterer, who calls himself an adept in the art of taking likenesses in plaister, came here highly recommended, & prevailed on Grand-Papa to submit to that horrible operation of moulding the plaister on his face, & even enclosing the whole head & throat, which seems like burying alive." Apparently Jefferson recovered enough to join the family for dinner and Browere was invited to stay despite the distress he caused the former President and his family. Virginia Trist said her grandfather was in "his usual cheerful spirits," but that Browere "had the impudence to advert to the scene as if it were fit subject for his jests." Word of the event traveled throughout Jefferson's family members as well. His gransons-in-law exchanged letters in November. Joseph Coolidge in a letter to Nicholas Trist wrote, "That rascal Browere deserves castigation-; when the letter came wh.[ich] told us of his conduct we were distressed to hear of the suffering he has caused G[ran]dP[apa]."
Further family accounts told to biographer Henry. S. Randall in 1858, indicate that it was Thomas Jefferson's enslaved personal attendant and butler, Burwell Colbert, who recognized Jefferson's distress and helped save his life. Randall wrote, "Burwell became conscious of [Jefferson's] situation and spring furiously forward," which must have either been in an effort to help Jefferson or to alert Browere as to what was happening.
Stories of Browere's life mask clearly spread around the plantation, possibly from Colbert or from others who witnessed it in the home. In his first-hand account, Peter Fossett, an enslaved man who lived at Monticello as a child, said,
"I never saw the bust made from this life mask, but I remember when the mask was taken. I was then ten years old. The man who took the mask covered Mr. Jefferson's head, shoulders, arms and body down to the waist with clay or plaster of some kind. He left holes for the nose and eyes. Somehow or other he left the plaster on too long and it got too hard. He had to take a chisel [to] knock it off and when he got it off Mr. Jefferson was greatly exhausted. The report got around that Mr. Jefferson had been killed, and there was the greatest excitement until we all saw Mr. Jefferson again alive and well. I see a magazine writer says there was no trouble about taking the life mask, but I know better for I was there and remember well the excitement it caused everywhere."
Browere's own account was a little more lighthearted than the others though. He wrote to Major Mordecai M. Noah in what he later described as a confidential letter. Noah, the editor of the New York National Advocate newspaper, then published it. According to Browere, "just as I was removing the material from the head and shoulders of the venerable patriot, four ladies came into the room, accompanied by a gentlemen, and troubled me with their exclamations and surmises, and thereby retarded my progress considerably." He did say, " I should do wrong to myself did I not say, that owing to the intrusions of the ladies, I had to pull the old gentleman's ears a little. We supped together a half hour after, and we all laughed heartily at the scene." While it is true that Browere then stayed another three days at Monticello and was not immediately thrown out of the home, the fact that everyone laughed heartily was contradicted by Virginia Trist's account.
When Browere returned to Boston, newspapers had been reprinting the account he sent to Noah, which had been published in the New York National Advocate. Newspapers closer to Monticello, like the Charlottesville Central Gazette, were instead printing the accounts of one of Thomas Jefferson's grandsons, likely Benjamin Franklin Randolph, who had ridden to town during the event on October 15. The Richmond Enquirer published an account from Charlottesville that was critical of Browere's, saying, "Would you believe that this 'eccentric' artist and letter writer neither sympathized with the pain he had occasioned nor participated in the solicitude of the family. On the contrary, he was congratulating himself with the exactness of the likeness and unfeelingly jested about the pain and distress." Browere rebutted his critics by posting his own letter in the Boston Daily Advertiser, rebuking a press that he had "been induced to believe... was the champion of freedom and of civil and religious rights," while also apologizing to the former President Thomas Jefferson in the process.
Somehow the entire ordeal, which made it nationally into newspapers, did not fully discourage others from sitting for Browere's life masks. In November of 1825, he took two masks of former President John Adams, and his son, future President John Quincy Adams. Famous American portrait artist, Gilbert Stuart, sat for Browere at the end of November 1825 as well.
Finally in a letter on May 20, 1826, John Browere wrote again to Thomas Jefferson, saying he "intended not to wound your feelings or those of the ladies at Monticello." His flattery continued, "Your character I have always esteemed and I now intend evidencing that regard by making a full length Statue of the 'Author of America's Independence,' which (if the expresident be not in Newyork on 4th of July next) I intend presenting for that day to the Honorable expresident at Newyork, to be publickly exhibited to all who desire to view the beloved features of Friend of science & of Liberty." Jefferson's response to Browere spoke of "an alarm to my family which I neither felt nor expressed," and he wrote that "it has left not a trace of dissatisfaction as to yourself." He closed simply by writing, "Accept this assurance with my friendly salutns."
John Henry Isaac Browere did complete a full-length statue of Thomas Jefferson that went on display in New York's City Hall in time for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of United States' Independence. Unfortunately for Browere, the former President was not in attendance, as he died at that very same day: July 4, 1826.
This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
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