Artist/Maker: Joseph Jeakes (active early 19th c.), engraver, after William Roberts (active early 19th c.)
Created: c. 1810
Origin/Purchase: United States
Dimensions: 28.6 × 35.6 (11 1/4 × 14 in.)
Provenance: Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts; Douglas Battery Purchase Fund and G. Wilson Douglas Purchase Fund
Historical Notes: Jefferson considered the Natural Bridge and the passage of the Potomac River through the Blue Ridge Mountains at Harpers Ferry to be two of the most incredible natural sites in America and described them as "monuments of a war between rivers and mountains, which must have shaken the earth to its center."1 While President, Jefferson received oil paintings of the two wonders as a gift from the artist William Roberts, who also sent two copies of his engraving of the Natural Bridge. The two paintings hung in Monticello's Dining Room alongside the Coalbrookdale Bridge, England's feat of engineering, and Niagara Falls, another of America's natural wonders. Neither the oil paintings nor Jefferson's copies of the engravings are located.2
Little is known of Roberts's life and work, but he referred to himself as a Virginian and met Jefferson at least twice. The two were first introduced in Europe in 1786 by the naturalist Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur, and it seems likely that Jefferson suggested Harpers Ferry and the Natural Bridge as subjects for Roberts's work.3 Jefferson described both places in Notes on the State of Virginia, and he encouraged artists such as John Trumbull and Maria Cosway to paint them.
Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry in October 1783 and climbed a hill behind a tavern there to get the vantage point that inspired his powerful description in Notes on the State of Virginia of "one of the most stupendous scenes in nature."4
You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah, having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, and pass off to the sea.5
In Jefferson's time Harpers Ferry was the home of the United States arsenal. The town was later famous as the site of John Brown's 1859 rebellion.
2. In 1942, Mrs. Henry K. Dooley, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, reportedly owned Jefferson's painting of The Passage of the Potomac Through the Blue Ridge. Efforts to locate Mrs. Dooley or the painting have been unsuccessful.