The Penitent Magdalen; Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

Artist/Maker: Adrian Thomas Key (Flemish, c. 1544-1590)

Created: ca. 1575

Origin/Purchase: Antwerp, Belgium

Materials: oil on wood

Dimensions: 34 3/4 × 25 5/8 in.

Location: Parlor

Historical Notes: Although Thomas Jefferson owned a painting of "A Magdalen penitent" and hung it on the upper tier of his Parlor, this particular one is not the same work he describes in his Catalogue of Paintings as: "sitting, her hair dishevelled, her eyes looking up to heaven, a book in her right hand, & the left resting on a skull. a ¾ length of full size on Canvas, copied from Joseph de Ribera, called Espagnolet, purchased from St. Severin's collection. Catal. No. 59."[1]

Frequently inquired about by visitors to Monticello, it is important to note that this particular painting is not the same one owned by Thomas Jefferson. It was misidentified as such in 1936 when the monogram in the bottom right corner was thought to have been that of Ribera, and the dissimilarity between the painting and Jefferson's description was explained by Jefferson's having written the list from memory on one of his journeys, when he would often occupy his time by writing. The Magdalen painting currently on display in Monticello's Parlor was given to Monticello by Mary K. Chapman, a great-niece of James Madison, and family tradition held that the artwork was initially given by Jefferson to his old friend.

Research in 1971 by Bettina Jessel revealed that the problematic painting was most likely made by Adrian Thomas Key the younger, a Flemish painter who was born and worked in Antwerp, who signed his name in capitals or in the monogram seen at the bottom of this painting. As to the whereabouts of the Monticello Magdalen, the painting was sold in Boston in 1828, and its location is unknown. The work currently on display was probably purchased for James and Dolley Madison by Payne Todd when he was with the peace commissioners at Ghent, 1814-1815. It hung at Montpelier.

- Elizabeth L. O'Leary, 7/88


  1. ^ Jefferson purchased a number of paintings from the collection of Dupille de Saint-Séverin in February 1785. See MB, 1:576, 1:576n38. Transcription available at Founders Online. See also Jefferson's Catalogue of PaintingsThe Thomas Jefferson Papers, Accession #2958-b, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. For a transcription of Jefferson's catalogue, see Seymour Howard, "Thomas Jefferson's Art Gallery for Monticello," The Art Bulletin 59, no. 4 (1977): 583-600.