Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge; by gift to the Boston Athenaeum in 1912; copy made for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Accession Number: 1993-127-12
Historical Notes: Jefferson exhibited not one, but two portrait busts of George Washington at Monticello, a terra-cotta patinated plaster that he obtained in 1789 and a marble copy that was a later gift. In a letter to the sculptor Pietro Cardelli, he said that the plasters "are of a brick-dust color."1 The plaster version was displayed in Jefferson's "most honourable suite" in the Tea Room at Monticello. A family member said:
Washington's (by Houdon) wore a wreath of immortelles [dried flowers]. Some admirer in France sent these to Mr. Jefferson's family, to crown his bust on his birthday. He ordered them, instead, to be wreathed around the brow of Washington.2
Jefferson was responsible for persuading the Virginia Assembly to commission Houdon to portray General Washington, a native Virginian. Jefferson told Governor Benjamin Harrison that there "could be no question raised as to the Sculptor who should be employed, the reputation of Monsr. Houdon of this city being unrivalled in Europe."3 The initial plan, devised in Virginia, called for Houdon to model the likeness after a full-length portrait by Charles Willson Peale that was shipped to Jefferson. Recognizing how much better a life portrait would be, Jefferson prevailed upon the Virginians to finance Houdon's trip to America. Houdon arrived at Mount Vernon on October 2, 1785, and stayed until October 19, returning to France on December 25, 1785.4 The bust was shipped separately and arrived in Paris in May 1786.
Houdon made many versions of Washington's bust in marble and plaster. Jefferson's plaster, acquired in 1789, was undraped, a l'antique.