Historical Notes: Thomas Jefferson received a plaster copy of a bust of Tsar Alexander I of Russia as a gift from the American consul general at St. Petersburg, Levett Harris, in 1804. Harris, like Jefferson, held a high opinion of the monarch, whose "greatness and goodness which he so remarkably unites."1 The bust was transported from Washington to Monticello in March 1806. Jefferson wrote Harris to thank him in April:
"It will constitute one of the most valued ornaments of the retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home. I had laid it down as a law for my conduct while in office, and hitherto scrupulously observed, to accept of no present beyond a book, a pamphlet, or other curiosity of minor value; as well as to award imputation on my motives of action, as to shut out a practice susceptible of such abuse. But my particular esteem for the character of the Emperor, places his image in my mind above the scope of the law. I receive it, therefore, and shall cherish it with affection. It nourishes the contemplation of all the good placed in his power, and his disposition to do it."2
Jefferson's instructions in 1806 were to place the bust of Alexander in the then-unfinished Cabinet. Later, to dramatize the contrast between evil and virtue, the bust of Alexander was installed opposite Napoleon's likeness, flanking the Parlor doors to the West Portico. Jefferson identified it in his Catalogue of Paintings as "Alexander of Russia. A bust of plaster."
Jefferson began to correspond with Alexander I in 1804, three years after his accession to the throne. He believed that Alexander was a person of noble character with Enlightenment values, and wrote laudatory comments about him to many people, including Joseph Priestley:
The apparition of such a man on a throne is one of the phænomena which will distinguish the present epoch so remarkable in the history of man. But he must have an herculean task to devise and establish the means of securing freedom and happiness to those who are not capable of taking care of themselves. Some preparation seems necessary to qualify the body of a nation for self-government...Alexander will doubtless begin at the right end, by taking means for diffusing instruction and a sense of their natural rights through the mass of his people, and for relieving them in the meantime from actual oppression."3
Although Jefferson was full of optimism for what Alexander might accomplish, his reign was far from the success that Jefferson envisioned.
The original portrait by Shubin is in the collection of the Voronezh Museum of Plastic Arts in Voronezh, Russia. Jefferson's plaster is unlocated.