Reclining in front of Monticello’s Entrance Hall fireplace is a marble statue of Ariadne, a figure from Greek mythology. How did this statue come to be at Thomas Jefferson’s home? Find out on this episode of Mountaintop History with Guide Olivia Brown.

Olivia Brown: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation - from the past and from the present. Thank you for joining us, we hope you'll learn something new. 

Thomas Jefferson recorded a statue as "17. a Cleopatra in Marble" in his catalogue of paintings, a record of the art installed in Monticello's public rooms. Later, he changed the [00:01:00] entry, writing, "No. 17 corrected. Ariadne reclined on the rocks of Naxos, where Theseus had just abandoned her." Who was Ariadne and how did a statue of her become prominently displayed at Monticello? 

In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. The fearsome Minotaur roamed through the labyrinth at her father's castle, and once each year, King Minos required his subjects to send one male and one female child as tribute to his rule. The children were sent into the labyrinth, never to be heard from again. When Greek hero, Theseus, arrived one year as one of the tributes, Ariadne fell in love with him and helped him survive the labyrinth by providing him with string that he could use to lead himself back out of the maze after finding and killing the Minotaur. Theseus took her to the island of Naxos, where he abandoned her with no way to get home to Crete nor to come find him in Greece. Nearly dead and asleep on the rocks of Naxos, ariadne was found by the Greek god Dionysus, who helped her and made her island into a place where she could live comfortably, eventually becoming a goddess herself. This myth was one Thomas Jefferson would have been familiar with through many of the books in his library. He began learning Greek from a young age, and classical authors like Diodorous Siculus in his The Library of History, Pausanias in his Description of Greece, and Plutarch in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, all featured in the titles on Jefferson's shelves, also featured the myth [00:03:00] of Ariadne. 

The statue is a sleeping female figure, reclined on rocks, draped in robes. Her right arm is flung above her head, and she wears an asp-shaped cuff on her left arm. Her face, with her eyes closed, rests on her left hand. An example of a second century BCE Greek sculpture, the work has been the subject of numerous copies over the centuries. One of those copies eventually made it to Monticello and was placed in Thomas Jefferson's Entrance Hall. 

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson nominated James Bowdoin III as the American Minister to Spain. It was a challenging post in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish, French, and Americans were not all on the best terms. While Bowdoin did end up traveling to Europe, he only made it as far as Paris. Political turmoil and difficulties prevented him from fully assuming his position in Madrid, and he often wrote to Thomas Jefferson asking for assistance in fulfilling his duties as Foreign Minister. On March 25, 1805, before he ever traveled to Europe, Bowdoin made Jefferson a proposition. He thanked the President for the appointment and offered his help in acquiring art for Jefferson's personal collection. As a younger man, Bowdoin went on a grand tour of Europe - he traveled around the continent and saw cities in France and Italy and also saw masterpieces of art throughout his trip. He acknowledged that he may have shortcomings in serving specifically as an art collector for Jefferson, but inquired regardless, quote. "Will you permit me to make you a tender of my services in procuring for you any Specimens of the arts, either in sculpture or painting: & although I am no adept, yet from having been in Italy & having viewed the works of the best masters, if you would entrust me with your commissions, I would execute them in the best manner in my power." In the same letter, Bowdoin offered to send Jefferson a marble statue he had acquired. Perhaps because of the asp-shaped bracelet on her arm, Bowdoin referred to the work as "a Cleopatra copied & reduced from the ancient one now in Paris," information Jefferson used for his own list later on. Even though Jefferson did not take Bowdoin up on his generous offer to serve as an art broker for him, he accepted the gift of the sculpture, which arrived at Monticello in 1805. Later, after consulting a book that included a line drawing of the sculpture and identified her as Ariadne, Jefferson updated his catalog. 

The source for Bowdoin and Jefferson's sculpture was a copy after the original that had been displayed in the Vatican since the early sixteenth century. The copyist for this work is unknown, and the sculpture came into the possession of a French official in Italy before James Bowdoin purchased it and brought it to Boston. After it traveled from Boston to Monticello, the sculpture was displayed in a highly visible place in the Entrance Hall in front of the fireplace. For most of Thomas Jefferson's retirement, when hundreds of guests were coming up to Monticello to meet him, they would have encountered Ariadne in her same location, with at least one notable exception. The statute was moved to accommodate the crowds at Monticello during the Marquis de Lafayette's visit in 1824. Likely moved by Monticello's enslaved butler Burwell Colbert [00:07:00] along with other members of the enslaved community, "a sleeping statue of Ariadne on the rocks at Naxos had been removed to another part of the hall: the fire place had been revealed in which burned a cheery wood-fire," according to Jane Blair Cary Smith. How they moved the statue, which weighs over 500 pounds, was not recorded. 

Ariadne represents the realization of Jefferson's ambitious and early wish list for copies of a selection of popular classical sculptures. Ariadne is, however, the rare example of classical sculpture that Jefferson collected. She became a figure in the home, and in 1817, Cornelia Randolph, one of Jefferson's granddaughters, wrote to her sister Virginia about practicing her drawing using the statue, "I wonder you do not persevere in attempting to draw human figures it is so much more  agreeable than flowers, since I have been here I have attempted several on Ariadne, which I spoilt after completing the figure by trying to draw the rocks & failing in the attempt." When she wrote the letter, Cornelia Randolph was not at Monticello, but rather at Thomas Jefferson's retreat home, Poplar Forest. It's quite likely, however, that Jefferson's granddaughters used his art pieces as a way to practice drawing the human form. Ariadne served as an inspiration for young female artists honing their craft. 

Due to Thomas Jefferson's financial situation after his death. His belongings were sold by the Randolph family to begin paying off the debts. Few things stayed with the family, but Ariadne was among them. Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, one of his granddaughters who moved to Boston following her marriage, chose specific pieces of her grandfather's to keep. In an 1833 letter from Boston to her mother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Ellen Coolidge wrote, "I kept back the Ariadne, Bonaparte, Holy Family, Crucifixion, Hector & Andromache & the soap-stone Indian, because I thought it a pity to sacrifice them as the others were sacrificed." The statue remained in the family for 160 years, generously loaned to Monticello since the 1920s, and then given to the Foundation in 1993. Ariadne has undergone extensive cleaning and conservation, including replacing some of her fingers that had been damaged over time. Fully restored, Ariadne remains in the same place she did over 200 years ago: reclining on the rocks at Naxos in front of Monticello's Entrance Hall fireplace.

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and the Virginia Audio Collective. To learn more about Monticello, or to plan your next trip, visit us online at


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