Provenance: Although no mention of it is made in either the Boston Athenaeum or Harding Gallery sales, it is presumed that the Voltaire was among the paintings and sculpture sent to the Coolidge family for sale in Boston after Jefferson's death
Accession Number: 1945-17
Historical Notes: Voltaire, the great French philosopher and writer, died six years before Jefferson arrived in Paris. Jefferson admired his works and included them among a list of books of ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, and religion recommended for the education of his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787.1 Jefferson's library included Voltaire's works published by Beaumarchais at Kehl, which he visited. A little more than a year after Jefferson arrived in Paris, he wrote, "I find the general fate of humanity here most deplorable. The truth of Voltaire's observation offers itself perpetually, that every man here must be either the hammer or the anvil."2
The last twenty years of Voltaire's life were spent in partial exile at his estate at Ferney, near the Swiss border. In February 1778 he came back to Paris where he sat for Houdon, who took a life mask. Houdon made an array of variations, which were immediately popular, including a seated version and a bust. Art historian H. H. Arnason called the bust of Voltaire "one of the most famous if not the most famous portrait sculpture in history."3 While in Paris, Jefferson saw it in the lobby of the Théâtre Français, now Odéon.4
It is not known which of the five versions of the bust was acquired by Jefferson; the bust now in Monticello's collection is a modern plaster. No record of the original can be found after Cornelia Randolph's drawing of the plan of Monticello's first floor, made after Jefferson's death, which records its location in the Entrance Hall.
1. Jefferson to Peter Carr, Paris, August 10, 1787, in PTJ, 12:19. Transcription available at Founders Online. Peter Carr was the son of Jefferson's sister Martha and his boyhood friend Dabney Carr, who died prematurely and was the first to be buried in the Jefferson graveyard at Monticello. See also Jefferson to Robert Skipwith, Monticello, August 3, 1771, in PTJ, 1:76-81. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Jefferson to Charles Bellini, Paris, September 30, 1785, in PTJ, 8:568. Letterpress copy available online at the Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. H. H. Arnason, The Sculptures of Houdon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 49. For an account of the bust of Voltaire, see especially 49-53.