Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by deposit by Joseph Coolidge to the Boston Athenaeum from 1828 to 1867; by gift or purchase to Charles H. Taylor; by gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1931; copy made from original for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Accession Number: 1939-6
Historical Notes: John Paul Jones, the naval commander of the Revolutionary War, was born John Paul in Scotland.1 He began a naval career at twelve; "Jones" was appended to John Paul sometime later.
At the beginning of the Revolution, Jones was jobless, but he received a commission in December 1775. After considerable success Jones was given command of a French ship, which he renamed the Bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard) to honor Benjamin Franklin, who was then America's minister to France. Sailing under American colors, Jones went to sea in August 1779 with a small squadron. The Bonhomme Richard took on the much larger British vessel Serapis in a bitter sea fight. Jones's ship was sunk, but only after the Serapis was surrendered. The battle made Jones a naval hero.
The Freemason Lodge of the Nine Sisters commissioned Houdon to complete Jones's portrait upon his triumphant return to Paris in 1779. A terra-cotta patinated plaster was not shown until the Salon of 1781; the date of the sitting is not known.2 Jones presented Jefferson with a plaster in February 1786 and wrote to thank him for his letter (unlocated):
I have received the kind Note you wrote me this morning, on the occasion of receiving my Bust. I offered it to you as a mark of my esteem and respect, for your virtues and talents. It has been remarked by professed judges, that it does no discredit to the talents of Mr. Houdon; but it receives its value from your acceptance of it ....3
In 1788, Jones ordered at least eight plasters from Houdon to present to American friends. He wrote Jefferson:
Some of my Friends in America did me the honor to ask for my Bust. I inclose the Names of eight Gentlemen, to each of whom I promis'd to send one. You will oblige me much, by desiring Mr. Houdan to have them prepared and pack'd up two and two ....4
William Short was instructed by Jefferson to send busts to General St. Clair and Mr. Ross of Philadelphia; John Jay, General Irvine, Secretary Charles Thomson, and Colonel Wadsworth of New York; and James Madison and Colonel Carrington of Virginia.5 Of these eight busts, only two can now be located — Jefferson's and General Irvine's, now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
Jefferson placed Jones's bust in the Tea Room, and later recommended it to John Sherburne as the basis for an engraving. Jefferson disliked the Jones engraving that Sherburne had sent him in 1825 and wrote that "it does not recall one single feature of his face to my perfect recollection of him. Houdon's bust of him is an excellent likeness."6
After Jefferson's death the Jones bust was shipped to Boston. It was accepted as a deposit at the Boston Athenaeum from Joseph Coolidge, Jr. on March 11, 1828, together with Jefferson's busts of Franklin and Washington. Coolidge said that he would "be very glad to add to the valuable collections of busts [at] the Boston Athenaeum."7 No record of it appears on the Athenaeum records after 1867, and it is thought to be the plaster in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which was the gift of Charles H. Taylor in 1931. The bust was once among the effects of Moses Kimball, proprietor of the Boston Museum theater that often borrowed sculpture in the 1860s and 1870s for stage sets.8