Thomas Jefferson was acutely conscious of the importance of historical icons in the formation of a national identity. Like the Indian artifacts and mastodon bones, Jefferson's collection of American art was his contribution to the creation of a new nation.
In 1803, a list of the artworks at Monticello showed 126 items, including "17 in the entrance hall, 49 in the parlor, 10 in the dining room, and 36 in the tearoom (most of the works in this small room were miniatures)." Jefferson was also known to have a "large portfolio of unframed prints and drawings."
This varied collection of sculpture, paintings, prints and maps had been acquired the way much of Monticello had been built, by accretion. When he was making plans for building the first Monticello, he included in his "Construction Notebook" a "wish list" of 19 works of sculpture and painting.
His primary interest was sculpture, for the same classical education that turned him to Rome for architectural inspiration directed him to statuary, the representational art form most directly linked to classical antiquity. At the head of his list were the Medici Venus and the Apollo Belvedere. Copies of these two works "were most likely intended for two niches in the parlor of the original house." He never acquired them, but during a lifetime of collecting, he managed to amass a sizeable number of sculptural busts, and enough paintings, prints, and maps to fill the available wall space of the public rooms of Monticello.
Jefferson acquired much of his collection randomly, buying some items in Paris at auction, commissioning copies of others, and receiving some as presentation copies. The one distinguished artist whose work he owned was Jean-Antoine Houdon, whom he became acquainted with in Paris. He brought to Monticello a total of 7 busts by Houdon, mostly of American patriots, including the famous Houdon likeness of Jefferson himself.
Jefferson’s painting collection included a number of copies of old masters, including Raphael, Leonardo, and Rubens. Copies of famous paintings, particularly if done by a competent hand, were considered in good taste in the 18th century.
In addition, the walls of Monticello were decorated with geographical and historical scenes of America, as well as portraits of its luminaries. He acquired likenesses of such explorers of the Americas as Columbus, Cortez, Magellan, and Vespucci, and of the colonizer of Virginia, Sir Walter Raleigh.
To these were added a gallery of paintings or prints of American patriots, including Washington, Adams, Franklin, Lafayette, and Paine. He displayed in the lower tier of works hung in the parlor a set of ten medals of officers who had distinguished themselves during the Revolution.
There were also portraits of his private European heroes, "the three greatest men the world had ever produced," Bacon, Newton, and Locke, for their contributions to the intellectual foundations of the nation.
Jefferson had encouraged John Trumbull to paint scenes of the Revolutionary War, and acquired a print of the most famous of these, "The Declaration of Independence." It was added to a wide collection of Americana, including scenes of Harper's Ferry, Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge, New Orleans, Mount Vernon, and an elevation of Monticello by Robert Mills.
Jefferson's Monticello collection of art works, natural history specimens, and American Indian artifacts, many from the Lewis and Clark expedition, has become emblematic of his remarkable intellect and his dedication to the country that he helped found.
(excerpts from McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The biography of a builder. New York : H. Holt, c1988, p.360-3)
For further information about the art collection of Thomas Jefferson, see:
Adams, William Howard. Jefferson and the arts: An extended view. Washington : National Gallery of Art, 1976.
Berman, Eleanor Davidson. Jefferson among the arts; An essay in early American esthetics. New York, Philosophical Library .
McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The biography of a builder. New York : H. Holt, c1988.
Stein, Susan R. The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. New York : H.N. Abrams, in association with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc., 1993.
This information from our Smithsonian Institution's Ask Joan of Art!