Thomas Jefferson lived in Paris from August 1784 to September 1789: five years that were, according to Lucia Stanton and Douglas L. Wilson, "arguably the most memorable of his life. Paris—with its music, its architecture, its savants and salons, its learning and enlightenment, not to mention its elegant social life ... had worked its enchantments on this rigidly self-controlled Virginia gentleman, and had stimulated him to say and do and write remarkable things."1
Jefferson was sent to Paris by Congress to join American Ministers Plenipotentiary Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. When Franklin returned to America in 1785, Jefferson succeeded him. Jefferson wrote to John Jay in June 1785: "On the 14th. of May I communicated to the Count de Vergennes my appointment as minister plenipotentiary to this court and on the 17th. delivered my letter of credence to the king at a private audience and went through the other ceremonies usual on such occasions."2
From his youth, Jefferson had dreamed of taking the Grand Tour of Europe, but it wasn’t until the forty-one year old widower received a diplomatic appointment to Paris in 1784 that the dream became a reality. Early in life, Jefferson learned to admire European culture through books, as Peter Jefferson had insisted that his son have a classical education.
His enthusiasm for being in Paris is seen in a letter he wrote to Charles Bellini in September 1785: "Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe! ... you are perhaps curious to know how this new scene has struck a savage of the mountains of America. ... Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words. It is in these arts they shine."3
Jefferson wrote about Parisian architecture to Madame de Tessé: "While at Paris, I was violently smitten with the hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Thuileries almost daily to look at it."4 He saw the remodeled Palais Royal, the Halle aux Bleds, and various cathedrals, including Sainte-Geneviève (the Panthéon) and the Madeleine.
In Paris, Jefferson was introduced to the leading artists of the day. He met Jacques Louis David and posed for Jean Antoine Houdon for a portrait bust that was later exhibited in the Salon of 1789. He attended the 1789 exhibit at the Salon Carrée in the Louvre with Gouverneur Morris, and they saw works by Hubert Robert, David, and Madame Vigée Le Brun. Copies of the European Masters that Jefferson purchased at auctions and at indebted estates hung on the walls of his elegant Parisian house, the Hôtel d’Langeac.
Jefferson wrote about engineering feats that he saw in Paris: "He marveled at the hydraulic pumping system that provided the water for the royal gardens and called attention to the quiet magnificence of Parisian bridges .... On his tours ... his pen was kept busy recording his rapid-fire observations—on soil, on crops and livestock, on roads, and canals, and on local customs."5
While in Paris, Jefferson attended several theaters where he saw plays by Racine, Molière, Lasage, and Dancourt. The most notable production he attended was Beaumarchais’s Mariage de Figaro, ou La Folle Journée.6
Jefferson especially enjoyed visiting the book stores of Paris: "[W]hile residing in Paris I devoted every afternoon I was disengaged, for a summer or two, in examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hands, and putting by every thing which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare & valuable in every science."7
Susan Stein, in The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, writes about Jefferson "Shopping for a Lifetime" in France. He bought furniture, kitchen utensils, candlesticks, teapots, tablecloths, fabric, and many other items. When he arrived back in America, he would eventually have 86 packing crates shipped to him from Paris.8
Primary Source References
1785 September 20. (Jefferson to James Madison). "We took for our model what is called the Maisonquarrée of Nismes, one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful & precious morcel of architecture left us by antiquity. ... You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as it’s object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect of the world & procure them it’s praise."9
1785 September 30. (Jefferson to Charles Bellini). "Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe! ... I have never yet seen a man drunk in France, even among the lowest of the people. Were I to proceed to tell you how much I enjoy their architecture, sculpture, painting, music, I should want words. It is in these arts they shine. "10
1787 March 20. (Jefferson to To Madame de Tessé). "While at Paris, I was violently smitten with the hotel de Salm, and used to go to the Thuileries almost daily to look at it."11
1787 August 30. (Jefferson to John Trumbull). "The Salon has been open four or five days. I inclose you a list of it’s treasures. The best thing is the Death of Socrates by David, and a superb one it is. A crucifixion by Roland in imitation of Relief is as perfect as it can be. Five peices of antiquities by Robert are also among the foremost. Many portraits of Madme. Le Brun are exhibited and much approved. There are abundance of things in the stile of mediocrity. Upon the whole it is well worth your coming to see. ... The whole will be an affair of 12. or 14. days only and as many guineas; and as it happens but once in two years, you should not miss it."12