The future Madame de Tessé, née Adrienne Catherine de Noailles, was the second child of Louis de Noailles, 4th Duke of Noailles and a Marshall of France, and Catherine Françoise Charlotte de Cossé-Brissac. Born on December 24, 1741, she married René de Froulay, Comte de Tessé on June 20, 1755. The couple had no children.
According to the editor of the memoirs of the Marquise de Montagu, sister of Madame de Lafayette and niece of Madame de Tessé, "Madame de Tessé was in every respect a remarkable person: small, piercing eyes, a pretty face marred at the age of twenty by small pox, which, it is said, was no worry to her thanks to her precocious mind; a fine mouth, but slightly misshapen by nervous tic which made her grimace when talking, and, in spite of all that, an imposing air, grace and dignity in all her movements, and above all, infinitely witty. She was one of those ladies of the Old Regime, captivated by the philosophical ideas of the century, and intoxicated by the seductive innovations which were to bring about, in their eyes, the regeneration and happiness of our country."1
Madame de Tessé first met Thomas Jefferson through her nephew, the Marquis de Lafayette, during the time that Jefferson served as Minister Plenipotentiary to France. In 1784, Lafayette wrote to his wife Adrienne, "I must not forget, dear heart, to commend to your attention Mr. and Miss Jefferson. The father, an admirable, cultivated and charming man, overwhelmed me with kindnesses when he was Governor of Virginia during the war, and I very much hope that he may like France well enough to wish to replace Mr. Franklin, which will not be difficult to manage should he consent. As to the daughter, she is a very attractive young woman, and I here and now appoint you to be her mother, chaperone and anything else you can think of. I beg you to take them under your wing, and to do all you can for them. … It would be no bad thing if you took them to see Madame de Tessé."2
The first extant letter between them was a letter written on July 20, 1786, by Madame de Tessé to Jefferson; however, it is obvious from the letter that there had been earlier correspondence. The two shared interests in horticulture, literature, architecture, and the fine arts. In addition, Madame de Tessé espoused the liberal philosophy of the age; Voltaire was one of her friends, as was Madame de Staël and Diderot.
The de Tessés maintained a house in Paris on the rue de Varenne in the Faubourg de Saint-Germain section of Paris and a chateau six kilometers beyond Versailles in Chaville. The Chateau Chaville, in which the de Tessés lived until the French Revolution, was built by Louis XV, two years after the demolition of an earlier chateau. The king apparently felt that the park in which the old chateau resided was "a park without a soul." In 1766, he ordered a new chateau to be built, designed by Étienne-Louis Bouilée, his own architect. Neo-classical in the style of the Petit Trianon, he presented this chateau to the Marshall of France, the Comte de Tessé. Situated on 65 acres, the property had new English gardens with wide avenues throughout the park. This was the property for which Madame de Tessé ordered numerous plants from Jefferson. She was particularly interested in acquiring plants native to Virginia and Jefferson was interested in those native to France. Thus began a long correspondence about horticulture and many efforts to ship seeds and plants across the Atlantic, interrupted only by the de Tessés' exile in Switzerland during the Revolution. On October 17, 1790, the Chateau Chaville was declared a national property. Many of the plants Madame de Tessé had cultivated at Chaville were taken for the Jardin du Roi in Paris. The chateau was demolished around 1800.
Madame de Tessé and her husband fled to Switzerland during the Revolution. They purchased a place in Wittmold, Holstein, near the town of Ploen, in which they lived during their exile. The reminiscences of the Marquise de Montagu also give a delightful and affectionate picture of Madame de Tessé during the Emigration. A good manager, the countess had succeeded in transferring some capital abroad, and thus was able to help others who had been less foresighted. The estate in Wittmold became a refuge for the de Tessés as well as many others. "Here, always surrounded by a sizable household and such old friends as the Marquis de Mun and his son, Madame de Tessé, a brilliant and tireless conversationalist, held court in the manner of her salon at Chaville in the days of the Ancien Régime. There were interminable readings at these evening sessions—Clarissa Harlow (which lasted a whole month), then Tristram Shandy, followed by Plutarch's Lives, and occasionally an Oraison Funèbre of Bossuet."3 At some point during this period, Jefferson invited the de Tessés to visit him in Virginia but she declined because she was deathly afraid of the sea. She was also loath to leave because she felt that there were people who depended upon her in Switzerland.
During this time, the correspondence between Madame de Tessé and Jefferson came to a halt. Due to political tensions between England, France, and the United States, and Jefferson's position as President of the United States during part of this time, he was unable to correspond with Madame de Tessé for many years.
When the de Tessés returned to Paris in the early 1800s, they purchased a building on rue d'Anjou (today the Faubourg St. Honoré). In addition, they had a country place at Aulnay, again near Paris. The correspondence between Madame de Tessé and Jefferson recommenced, as did the exchange of plants and seeds. The War of 1812 resulted in the delay of many plant shipments, however, and others that were shipped during this time were dead on arrival.
Many scholars believe that it was Madame de Tessé who most strongly contributed to the development of Jefferson's taste for French architecture as well as for beautiful buildings. He had studied architecture before arriving in Paris, but during his four-year stay in Europe, he had the opportunity, for the first time, to see not only many of the buildings with which he was familiar but many others as well. From these buildings, he adopted various aspects that we see today in his designs for the University of Virginia, Monticello, Poplar Forest, and the Virginia Capitol.
The Comte de Tessé died at Aulnay on January 21, 1814, followed by the death of Madame de Tessé one week later. Jefferson had sent her a letter dated December 8, 1813, but by the time it arrived, she had already passed away. In writing to Jefferson some months after their deaths, the Marquis de Lafayette commented, "You Remember our Happy Hours, and Animated Conversations at chaville—How far from us those times, and those of the venerable Hôtel de la Rochefoucauld! and we who still number among the living do we not chiefly Belong to what is no more?"4