Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by purchase to an unidentified buyer at the Harding Gallery sale in 1833; by gift from the family of Charles Eliot Norton to Harvard University in 1912; by gift to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1959
Accession Number: 1960-13
Historical Notes: Thomas Jefferson called Bacon, Newton, and Locke, who had so indelibly shaped his ideas, "my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced."1 While in Paris in January 1789, Jefferson launched an effort to obtain portraits of his "trinity" as well as of Algernon Sidney (1622-1683), British author and politician; John Hampden (1594-1643), British statesman; and Shakespeare. Jefferson wrote John Trumbull in London:
What would it cost to have them copied by some good young hand, who will do them well and is not of such established reputation as to be dear? Those 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. Do the busts of the same persons, Newton, Locke, &c. exist, and what would they cost in plaster?2
In February 1789 Trumbull replied:
I have made enquiry about the pictures for which you enquire. Several of them exist, and are to be got at:—and a young man whom I know and who will do these Copies as well as most copiers: undertakes to do them for three Guineas each .... —I do not think tolerable copies can be procur’d for less.— The Busts in Plaister of Newton, Locke, Bacon, and Shakespeare may be had at from 25/ to 30. each, the size of life:—3
Anticipating that he would soon be in America for several months, Jefferson responded with his approval to proceed with the portraits of his "trinity" and a sketch.
I will put off till my return from America all of them except Bacon, Locke and Newton, whose pictures I will trouble you to have copied for me: and as I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical and Moral sciences, I would wish to form them into a knot on the same canvas, that they may not be confounded at all with the herd of other great men. To do this I suppose we need only desire the copyist to draw the three busts in three ovals all contained in a larger oval in some such forms as this each bust to be the size of the life. The large oval would I suppose be about between four and five feet. Perhaps you can suggest a better way ....4
In fact, Trumbull disliked Jefferson's idea. He told him:
I have given your Commission for the three pictures:—but I cannot say I think you will like the arrangement you propose when you see it executed:—The blank spaces between the three ovals will have a very awkward look. Besides that the whole will be unweildy either to transport or to hang:—I should certainly have them seperate and of the common size and distinguish the three by the manner of hanging them.—I have order’d the copyist to go on with only one of the heads untill I have your answer.5
Jefferson concurred with Trumbull's suggestion saying, "I submit the plan of the pictures implicitly to your opinion and therefore adopt your advice to have them separate. In this case they had better not be oval."6
On April 12, 1789, Trumbull made arrangements with the naturalist Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, for Stewart, who was presumably the copyist, to make copies of portraits of Newton, Bacon, and Locke in the Society's apartments.7 By May 26 the paintings were completed, and Trumbull reported that:
—the Pictures are less good than I wish, but the fault is more in the originals than in the copyist.—Originality is indeed all their merit—to this I beleive they have the best claim. They hang in the Apartments of the Royal Society and I am assur’d by Sr. J: Banks that they are genuine.8
The three portraits left England on the Diligence on May 30, 1789.9
It is not known if Jefferson ever hung the three portraits at the Hôtel de Langeac. They were exhibited together at his house in Philadelphia and later at Monticello where they hung in the upper tier in the Parlor. John Locke was sold at the Harding Gallery sale in Boston in 1833 for thirty-five dollars.10 The paintings of Newton and Bacon are unlocated.