Thomas Jefferson, “…with all his extraordinary versatility of character and opinions,” the historian Henry Adams wrote, “seemed during his entire life to breathe with perfect satisfaction nowhere except in the liberal, literary, and scientific air of Paris….”
Jefferson (1743–1826) lived in Paris for five years, from 1784 to 1789. His wife had died in 1782; sailing from Boston to Le Havre, he made the journey with his 11-year-old daughter Martha and his 19-year-old slave James Hemings.
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, fellow trade ministers, welcomed Jefferson in the fall of 1784. Their objective was to negotiate commercial treaties and to find favorable terms for American products in European markets. In 1785, Adams left for London to become American minister to England. The same year, the eminent Franklin, then nearly 80—scientist, publisher, diplomat, philosophe, inventor and bon vivant—returned to Philadelphia. John Adams reported “his reputation was more universal than that of Leibniz or Newton, Frederick the Great or Voltaire, and his character more beloved than any or all of them.” Franklin was a celebrity.
In sharp contrast, Jefferson was not widely known, even for drafting the Declaration of Independence. No portraits of him were painted until he sat for American artist Mather Brown in London in 1786. At 43, Jefferson replaced Franklin as minister to France. “The succession to Doctor Franklin at the court of France was an excellent school of humility,” Jefferson wrote.
If less gregarious than Franklin, Jefferson shared a similar Enlightenment view—that human knowledge and reason could be united to improve the human condition. The Marquis de Chastellux, who visited Jefferson at his unfinished Palladio-inspired Monticello in 1782, described Jefferson as a “Musician, Draftsman, Surveyor, Natural Philosopher, Jurist, and Statesman…without ever quitting his own country…”
Not surprisingly, Jefferson’s years in Paris expanded his perspective. He was immediately engaged by the grandeur and excitement of the city and what he called “the wonderful improvements” underway. He lived first near the Palais Royal, recently developed by the Duc d’Orléans and the architect Victor Louis. The arcaded square contained restaurants, shops, the Théâtre de Beaujolais, the Théâtre des Variétés Amusantes, a chess parlor, a gallery exhibiting Old Master paintings, and cabinets of natural history specimens, medals and scale models of tools. Jefferson dined and shopped there, in what the diarist Sébastien Mercier called “the capitol of Paris”.
Jefferson watched hot-air balloon ascensions, and the destruction of the old houses on the Pont Notre Dame over the Seine, and the construction of a new bridge at the Place Louis XV—today the Place de la Concorde. He attended concerts and theatrical productions, at least five of them at the new home of the Théâtre Français (now the Odéon), including the 90th performance of The Marriage of Figaro, written a few years earlier by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
Especially interested in architecture and smitten with domes, Jefferson toured Soufflot’s new domed church, Sainte Geneviève (now the Panthéon). With his special friend, the musician and artist Maria Cosway, wife of English miniaturist Richard Cosway, he explored the municipal grain market, the Halles aux Bleds, which also featured a dome. They traveled to the exotic pleasure garden, the Désert de Retz, just outside of Paris, whose fanciful constructions, called fabriques, included a habitable “ruin” known as the Colonne Détruite. Jefferson recalled, “How grand the idea excited by the column! The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea, and yet in the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we traveled over!”
Jefferson was entranced with the Hôtel de Salm, a new palace for the Prince de Salm facing the Seine, now the headquarters of the Legion of Honor. Jefferson rented a chair in the Tuileries, just across the river, to watch its construction “almost daily”, he wrote. Sitting on the parapet, with the chair in the wrong direction, he often left it, he said, with a stiff neck. More than any other Parisian building, the Hôtel de Salm influenced his redesign of Monticello in the 1790s.
For most of Jefferson’s time in Paris, he lived near the Grille de Chaillot, one of the city’s toll gates, where he rented the Hôtel de Langeac, designed by Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin (later architect of Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe), at the corner of the Champs-Elysées, which was still a field, and the rue de Berri. Ever the experimenter, Jefferson was a frequent visitor to the Jardin du Roi, the botanical garden that became today’s Jardin des Plantes, and he used his own garden as a laboratory for plants sent from America and others obtained from French friends.
Jefferson outfitted the Hôtel de Langeac in a dignified manner, so as to represent the young American government stylishly but moderately. He acquired furniture, silver, stoves, carpets, mirrors, sculpture, paintings and kitchen equipment, and made arrangements for James Hemings to learn the art of French cookery. To his frustration, the American government would not pay the cost of his furnishings, which ultimately found their way to Monticello.
Jefferson enjoyed the salons where politics and art were discussed. His wide circle included French friends of the American Revolution, Americans, nobility, intellectuals and artists. He remembered, “A more benevolent people, I have never known, nor greater warmth & devotedness in their select friendships. Their kindness and accommodation to strangers is unparalleled, and the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city.”
His only real book, Notes on the State of Virginia, was privately published first in Paris in 1784, just weeks before the first official English edition; a French edition followed in 1786. Jefferson began to write his observations during the late autumn of 1780, as responses to a series of questions posed by François de Barbé Marbois, the secretary of the French legation to the United States. The questions were intended to draw standard information about political, demographic, historical and economic conditions, but Jefferson answered them with insight indicative of his intellect.
Like many others, Jefferson flocked to the Louvre to see the Salons of the Royal Academy of Painters and Sculptors. Of the 330 paintings exhibited in the Salon of 1787, he gravitated to the historical work of Jacques-Louis David, especially the Death of Socrates, which he thought “superb” and the best of the show.
He also admired the “antiquities” of Hubert Robert, who showed his painting of the Maison Carrée, the 1st-century Roman temple in Nîmes. Jefferson had written earlier that year that he was “nourished from Lyons to Nîmes,” he said, “by the remains of Roman antiquity”. When he arrived at Nîmes in the spring of 1787, he wrote that the Maison Carrée is “the best morsel of antient architecture now remaining”. He gazed at it “like a lover at his mistress,” he wrote to Madame de Tessé. His design for the Virginia State Capitol is based upon it.
Although Jefferson, the advocate for the agrarian way of life, occasionally railed against urban life, decrying “beauty a begging in every street” and warning American fathers to keep their sons at home, he thrived on the conversation, art, music, cuisine, wine and intellectual life that he discovered in Paris.
Before leaving Paris in the fall of 1789, Jefferson sat for his friend, the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. When he left, he thought that he would return, but he was appointed Secretary of State by President Washington, and he never saw Paris again. William Short, his secretary, arranged for his belongings to be shipped to him in Philadelphia. In 1790, 86 crates of goods were unloaded at a Philadelphia dock. Jefferson complained bitterly about the “monstrous” bill of freight.
The crates contained the furnishings of the Hôtel de Langeac. Their contents made their way to Monticello—48 chairs; an architect’s desk; an obelisk clock that he designed himself; a seau crénelé, a crenelated porcelain bowl used for cooling wine glasses from the king’s own service at Versailles; footed silver goblets, made to his design by Odiot; a coffee urn, again to his own design; and much more. At Monticello, the reminders of Jefferson’s years in France were omnipresent—in the enlarged design with its dome, in the furnishings of every room, and in the dining room where the cuisine was” half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance,” and often served with French wines. In effect, Jefferson brought France to Virginia.
Jefferson himself said it best: “… so ask the traveled inhabitant of any nation, In what country on earth would you rather live?— certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life.—Which would be your second choice?—France.”
Susan R. Stein is the Richard Gilder Senior Curator and Vice President for Museum Programs at Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. website
From the France Today archives