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West Front of Monticello (Drawing)

Artist/Maker: Robert Mills (1781-1855)

Created: 1803?  

Origin/Purchase: Washington, D.C.

Materials: ink and wash on paper  

Dimensions: 20.9 × 36.8 (8 1/4 × 14 1/2 in.)  

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Ellen and Joseph Coolidge; by descent to Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, Jr.; by gift to the Massachusetts Historical Society

Historical Notes: Robert Mills left Charleston, South Carolina, for Washington in 1800 at age nineteen and entered the architectural office of James Hoban, who was then supervising the construction of the President's House and the Capitol.1 Years later Mills recalled in an essay on his architectural career that "fortunately for the author, Mr. Jefferson, then President of the United States (befriended him), to whose library he had the honor of having access."2 Mills probably consulted the books at Washington for, very likely, Jefferson kept on hand those needed to produce detailed drawings for his workmen at Monticello. Jefferson had completed, with the construction of the dome in 1800, the framing and closing-in of the building and was now engaged in the long process of finishing the joinery work. Mills noted that "the details were all drawn and proportioned by Mr. Jefferson and with an accuracy which astonished the workmen engaged in carrying them into execution."3

Although this drawing of the west elevation of Monticello is without signature or date, it is likely the one that hung in the lower tier in the Dining Room and was identified by Jefferson in his Catalogue of Paintings as "an elevation of the house at Monticello by Mills."4 The provenance was written on the back of the drawing in 1911:

Received from my father. My father received it from his mother. His mother received it from Mr. Jefferson, her grandfather. T. Jefferson Coolidge, Jr. Unframed by me, March, 1911, to put with portfolio of Jefferson architectural drawings, letters, etc. recently purchased by me from the Randolph family. T.J.C. Jr.

Further attribution to Mills is based on other drawings in Jefferson's possession exhibiting similar technique. One drawing for a house based on the Villa Rotonda bears Mills's inscription "T. Jefferson, Archt. R. Mills, Delt. 1803."5 Mills stated that "previous to entering Mr. Latrobe's office at Washington [1803] the author made the drawings of the general plan and elevations of Monticello."6 It is not unreasonable to conclude that this drawing dates from that time, but what is not clear is whether Mills made the drawing after visiting Monticello. In fact, it is uncertain when he was there and for how long. His notes, entitled "Description of Monticello House," mention the incomplete northwest range of dependencies and some particulars of landscape design, suggesting firsthand observation.7 He also noted that Jefferson had ordered a single sheet of glass to cover the dome oculus. Jefferson placed the order in June 1804.8

Regardless of whether the drawing is based on observation, if it dates from 1803, or even 1804, then it shows features that were not yet constructed. These include the balustrade, which was not built until 1807-08, and the West Portico columns, which were not up by 1807 when a visitor remarked that the "pediment had in the meanwhile to be supported on the stems of four tulip trees, which are really, when well grown, as beautiful as the fluted shafts of Corinthian pillars."9

The drawing is not without inaccuracies, such as the number of steps; the size of the cellar, dome, and pediment windows; the height of the main roof (shown here too low); the diminished height of the dome and proportion of the dome plinths. Mills also failed to show Jefferson's famous triple-sash windows, although that may be because he drew the double-sash windows too low and the basement too high.10

Perhaps the greater significance are the omissions, for if Mills produced this rendering from only what notes, drawings, or instruction Jefferson provided, then it could be a fairly accurate record of what Jefferson envisioned at that time. It is known that Jefferson's first reference to wanting sash for the arched openings of the South Piazza was in the fall of 1804, after which came the idea of louvered enclosures for the landings to the east and west of the piazza.11 However, omitting the parapet that continued the line of the balustrade onto the pedimented portico doorway may very well mean that they had not yet been incorporated in Jefferson's design.

According to Mills, it was with Jefferson's advice and recommendation that in 1803 he entered the office of Benjamin Latrobe, who had just been appointed by the president to the office of surveyor of public buildings.12 Mills remained with Latrobe until 1808 and then moved to Philadelphia. During his career, he designed churches, courthouses, jails, and hospitals, and he worked on engineering projects. He is known for his design of the Washington monuments at Baltimore (1814) and at Washington (1836), and for his design of the Treasury Building at Washington, also from 1836. Mills claimed to be the "first native American who directed his studies to architecture as a profession" — a training guided in its early stage, in part, by Jefferson.13

- Text from Stein, Worlds, 152-53

Further Sources

Related Links:
West Portico Columns
Travelin' TJ
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