University Museums

Title: America in the Making: Thomas Jefferson
Name: Painting
Date: 1938/1939
Medium: Oil on hardboard (Renaissance panel)
Dimensions: 26 3/4 × 24 7/8 in. (67.9 × 63.2 cm)
Classification: Paintings
Credit Line: Gift of John Morrell and Company, Ottumwa, Iowa. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Object Number: UM83.18
More Information
The committee appointed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence entrusted its framing to Thomas Jefferson. The document, full of Jefferson’s fervid spirit and personality and expressing the ideals to which his life was consecrated, was adopted, with change, July 4, 1776.

N.C. Wyeth’s son, American painter Andrew Wyeth, recalled that his father often deliberately chose to illustrate the less obviously intense moments in a story. “He always picked a scene that was not described very much,” the younger painter remembered. “He once explained, ‘Why take a dramatic episode that is described in every detail and do it? Instead I create something that will add to the story.’”1 The well-known American story of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) writing the Declaration of Independence is often shown at the moment that Jefferson, with others of the Continental Congress, present to the assembly the finished document to be voted upon, finally severing our ties to England and creating an independent country. Perhaps the most famous depiction of this scene is found in John Trumbull’s large-scale painting of 1818 on the ceiling of the rotunda in the United States Capitol. Other than simple portraits of Jefferson, this scene in what we now call Independence Hall is the subject most frequently used to illustrate his life. Wyeth, however, chose not the grand historical moment in the founding of the nation, but rather an hour of solitude, as the young Virginian worked through the night drafting the Declaration. What Wyeth shows is not a public act, but a private, internalized process. It is a portrait, so to speak, of intellectuality and purposeful, informed contemplation. Jefferson is not actually writing. His quill pen is poised, ready to record his words, but he is not looking at the paper in front of him. Leaning slightly forward with his chin in hand, his eyes are directed beyond his document, though they do not seem to be focused on anything in particular. He is not looking at anything in front of him, for his gaze is actually directed inward. Jefferson is thinking.

It is Jefferson’s thinking that is focused as he ponders his ideas and formulates phrases for a declaration that will set his society on an entirely new and consequential path, and a dangerous one. His eyes betray a certain weariness but he remains fully alert, turning over in his mind the lines he is addressing not only to the King of England, but to his fellow citizens. He is not composing a sound bite or a slogan, but he is trying to distill complicated ideas into sentences that reveal a firm intellectual foundation, and also give voice to the aspirations of the common man. How does he inform a monarch about democracy? How does he assure his fellow colonists about their rights while at the same time educating them about the responsibilities they take on as they create a new nation? Wyeth surrounds this colonial democrat with books which he seems to have been actively consulting.2 They are scattered about the desk, some of them on top of papers which have already been written on, suggesting they have been opened after he has drafted his paragraphs and are being used to confirm and refine his assertions. The book directly in front of Jefferson contains several book marks, again suggesting that he has consulted the works of other thinkers as part of his process of composing the Declaration of Independence.

Wyeth did not supply titles for the books surrounding Jefferson, but we know some of the writings that influenced his thinking.3 Jefferson did not read just firebrand treatises and broadsides declaring the offenses of the George III and the mother country against the colonists. For years, he taught himself the history of governments and was familiar with books that examined new ideas about reforming society which had emerged out of the Enlightenment, notably the writings of John Locke (1632-1704).4 (Is it possible that by having Jefferson gazing into the circular blaze created by the candles, Wyeth is almost literally referring to the influence of the Enlightenment on his subject’s thinking?) Perhaps the pre-eminence of the books in Wyeth’s illustration of Jefferson suggests the painter’s concept of him as a man of education and rationality. Jefferson was at pains in most of his public writings of this period to highlight the rationality of his arguments and to insist that he sought what were only our natural and reasonable rights. Within this pose and the ambiance in which Wyeth presented Jefferson is perhaps the artist’s interpretation that part of Jefferson’s goal was to show the British King and the world that the Americans were a rational people, that we took action with proper cause, and that we were capable of governing ourselves. The artist may also have been musing on the role of the individual and, also, of American society as a whole. By emphasizing Jefferson’s solitude, Wyeth might have been praising the individual and the quiet thoughtfulness of the educated, rational mind. Though alone as he wrote the Declaration of Independence, the words that Jefferson composed were to have their effect on many for generations forward and on the development of a new sort of society.

Wyeth was often noted for the historical accuracy of his paintings and for his rigor in presenting an authentic setting for his subjects. Jefferson wrote his drafts of the Declaration in the house of a Philadelphia brick mason, Jacob Graff, which was at the southwestern corner of Market and Seventh Streets.5 Jefferson rented rooms on the second floor, as the view of the rooftops outside suggests, and the design of the window correctly replicates that of the Graff house. Two candles on his desk6 have melted down to stubs while one metal candlestick is already empty, having burned through the hours of darkness. According to the nearby clock, it is nearing 3:30 and, since the time of year is around the summer solstice, the days are long. The sky is just beginning to lighten with the dawn, silhouetting the steeply pitched roofs of colonial Philadelphia beyond the window. This clock not only sets the time of the scene and suggests Jefferson’s preoccupation with his task, but it also showcases the high level of craftsmanship found in the American colonies. Chippendale7 was the style most popular for American interiors of the period, and Philadelphia was a center for master-craftsmen producing fine pieces for prosperous homes. Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) was an English cabinet maker who published his patterns which were then widely copied (and adapted in many variations) by other craftsmen.8 The top of the clock is ornamented with a scroll and in the center, where a finial would most often be carved, is a golden eagle which Wyeth may have intended to be seen as a symbol of the American Republic.9 The other piece of identifiable furniture in the room is Jefferson’s chair, and the chair back also suggests a version of the Chippendale style.10

Jefferson spent the period from June 11 to June 28 actively drafting and revising the Declaration, but Wyeth gives no clue as to when during that period this particular scene takes place. It is likely the artist was more interested in the intellectual process than specificity of time. By including so many papers on the desk, however, he clearly suggests that writing the document was a process filled with drafts, rough copies, revisions, and rejected elements. Jefferson had been involved for some time in writing about the political situation, so his mind was prepared to deal with all the issues involved. Yet, for the Declaration, he was drafting a contested document that would have to be debated and accepted (or rejected) among the thirteen colonies, their representatives, and their citizens.

Born in the colony of Virginia, Jefferson was trained as a lawyer, but his curiosity ranged well beyond his profession to encompass natural science, mathematics, architecture and design, music, inventions such as a new sort of plow, and many other endeavors. He was particularly interested in agriculture, and his plantation, Monticello, was the site of many of his experiments. In 1769, he was elected to Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature (founded in 1619) where he, along with other representatives like Patrick Henry, began to question British rule. By 1774, he had written a set of instructions for the Virginia delegates to the First Continental Congress (Jefferson himself did not attend the Congress) which outlined the grievances of the colony and formed the basis for later revolutionary documents, notably his own Declaration of Independence. Published as A Summary View of the Rights of British America that same year, it disseminated his ideas both in the colonies and abroad.

The Revolutionary War had already begun without the colonies declaring their independence in 1775, and the Second Continental Congress met to address not only the conduct of the war, but the actual separation of the colonies from England. As a delegate from Virginia, Jefferson traveled to the Congress in Philadelphia where he fostered the growing sentiment for independence. He was one of a committee of five (the others were Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) appointed by the Continental Congress to draw up an actual document to that effect. Jefferson and John Adams were selected to draft the declaration, but Adams insisted that the actual writing of it should be Jefferson’s alone because, Adams later wrote, he was known for having “a happy talent of composition.”11 The committee made a few changes, and presented Jefferson’s draft to the full convention. The Continental Congress voted to approve it, and on July 4, the Declaration of Independence was announced to the public.

Thomas Jefferson and The Mayflower Compact are the only two illustrations in Wyeth’s 1940 calendar that take place entirely in an interior, and both involve documents that helped to define the young American nation. As such, they have more to do with law and government than with active endeavors such as exploration and war. The Jefferson painting is less confined than the Mayflower scene which, even though light enters the composition from the left, does not actually include a window or any sort of view to the outdoors. Jefferson’s room appears commodious, without the low ceiling and restrictive walls of the ship, and certainly it reflects a more prosperous and comfortable society than the one in which the Pilgrims then found themselves. The composition is a rather rectilinear one, displaying mainly geometric forms such as the window frame, the books, the clock, and even the vertical accents of the three candlesticks. Only Benjamin Franklin approaches it in geometrical aspects. The figure of Jefferson himself is about the only major organic form in the picture.

The composition contains three important circular forms that direct the narrative and help set the tone of Wyeth’s version of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. One is the whitish face of the tall clock where we easily see that the night has stretched into the early hours of morning. The second is the brilliant orb of the light issuing from two candles. Though the sky outside is growing lighter, the town is still dark, as the buildings’ silhouettes show, and thus the sunrise has not yet penetrated into Jefferson’s room. There, the sole source of light is the two candles into whose glow the writer stares. Everything that is illuminated in this space is seen because of this single light. The light is ethereal, but Wyeth treats its radiation as an impenetrable shape that obliterates its immediate surroundings; we can barely make out the tops of the candles and cannot see the lower corner of the window sill at all. Wyeth had learned from his teacher, Howard Pyle, the benefit of using concentrated light effects.12 In dozens of his paintings, Wyeth employed the device that he does for Thomas Jefferson: a light emanating from a candle (or a lantern; occasionally a fire) that is so pronounced that it blocks the view of nearby objects and throws other elements of the composition into sharp profiles.13 The third circular form is, of course, the head of the figure of Jefferson, boldly illuminated on the face and falling quickly into shadow. The thoughtful features of the youthful writer (Jefferson was 34 when he wrote the Declaration.), his eyes especially, dominate the composition. Wyeth creates an interchange between these two important circular forms: Jefferson’s face is lighted by the glow of the candles, but his stare directs our eye back again into the light. Most of the interior is colored with shades of brown, but Wyeth enlivens the scheme by the green of Jefferson’s coat and the white brilliance of the papers spread along the desk.

In one of Wyeth’s studies for Thomas Jefferson, the artist emphasizes the overall light effects that would be translated into the painting. In another study, the artist excludes nearly everything except the figure, and his focus is the dramatic lighting on the face.14 Wyeth’s tax notes for this painting show costs for a model, a costume and a trip to the Philadelphia Historical Society. It is not known exactly what Wyeth researched at the Historical Society, but its collections would likely have provided him with information about the Graff House and objects that would have been found in a Philadelphia interior of 1776.

ENDNOTES

1 Wyeth, Andrew, “N.C. Wyeth,” in Brandywine River Museum, An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art, Boston: Little, Brown and Co, (A New York Graphic Society Book), 1987, 80.

2 In a letter of August 30, 1823 to James Madison, Jefferson asserted that he had “turned to neither book or pamphlet in writing it,” but the comment is generally understood as rebuking any accusation of plagiarism in its language. For a replica of his letter, see the website of the Library of Congress, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence. 1651-1827; http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib024747, image 1157.

3 Jefferson was a lifelong collector of books, and it was his personal collection that formed the basis of the Library of Congress.

4 In addition to books of international reputation by writers such as Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) and Henry Hume, Lord Kames (1696-1782) and others, Jefferson also consulted writings of his contemporaries such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) by George Mason (1725-1792) and his own instructions to Virginia’s delegates to the First Continental Congress of 1774, published as A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

5 Graff’s house was built in 1775, torn down in 1883, and was replaced by a replica in 1975. For a picture of the appearance of the house in 1883, see the Library of Congress’s website: http://loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jeffdec.html. For more recent information and images of the house, see the website of the National Park Service: http://nps.gov/history/history/online_books/declaration/site37.htm.

6 Most of his writing for the Declaration of Independence was probably carried out on a portable writing desk of his own design, which is currently housed in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

7 Professor John Cunnally of the Department of Art and Design at Iowa State University first identified the clock’s style in his comments used in labels for Wyeth’s work in exhibitions at the University Museums. Curatorial files, University Museums.

8 Published in London in 1754, Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director, was a popular source of design ideas for many furniture makers, especially those in the American colonies. The cabinet-maker William Savery (1721-1787) was the best known of the Philadelphia furniture craftsmen who specialized in versions of the Chippendale style.

9 It was once again Professor Cunnally who first noted the presence and the possible interpretation of the eagle on the clock.

10 The chair back in Thomas Jefferson appears similar to that used in Wyeth’s 1922 mural for the Langham Hotel in Boston, The Hamilton Mural (Alexander Hamilton Addressing George Washington and Robert Morris). The window designs in the two paintings are similar as well.

11 Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822. A transcription of the entire letter can be found at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=2081.

12 According to a student’s notes concerning Pyle: “A picture is more artistic where the light is concentrated on certain parts rather than all of it.” Notes of W.H.D. Koerner in files of the Delaware Art Museum Library; quoted in Stoner, Joyce Hill, “An Evolving Technique: N.C. Wyeth’s Methods and Materials,” essay in Podmaniczky, Catalogue Raisonné, 76.

13 In several of his comments on America in the Making, Professor John Cunnally notes the influence of the tenebristic Baroque style of lighting (as practiced by 17th century artists such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt) on Wyeth.

14 Podmaniczky, Catalogue Raisonné website: www.ncwyeth.org/; NCW No.1161. Podmaniczky has pointed out that “Wyeth often worked from family, friends of professional models, and then would add historacally accurate faces.” She also notes that this drawing was among those collected into a scrapbook by Andrew Wyeth and presented to his mother in 1946. The drawing of the figure alone is now in a private collection.