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Possible Earliest Portrait of Thomas Jefferson Found

Related: Art, History

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A team of researchers has uncovered what may be the earliest known portrait of Thomas Jefferson. If the picture proves to be Jefferson, it would give historians new insights into Jefferson's thinking and appearance soon after he became the American minister to France-less than ten years after he wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The canvas, a 1785 oil painting by the French artist Benjamin Nicolas Delapierre showing a gentleman seated at a desk and beginning to write on a sheet of paper, was purchased by an anonymous collector at an auction in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1996. At the time, the identity of the subject was unknown.

According to Dr. Joseph Pesce-president of the Northern Virginia consulting firm leading the research-the portrait was owned for more than 41 years by the secretive entrepreneur O. Roy Chalk, who also owned the renowned 1789 Houdon bust of Jefferson now at Monticello.

Conspicuously displayed in the painting is a book titled De la Caisse d'Escompte, a controversial work written by the French Revolutionary orator and statesman Comte de Mirabeau several years before Mirabeau achieved prominence.

"This book had important repercussions leading up to the French Revolution," said Pesce.

"If Jefferson is the subject, the fact that he chose to be depicted with Mirabeau's book in the foreground suggests that the American minister's alignment with Mirabeau occurred earlier-and was closer-than historians thought."

Adding to the potential historical significance is the possibility that the action depicted in the painting was Jefferson's first step in the crafting of a document titled "Heads for a letter to the Emperor of Morocco," written on 4 September 1785 and now owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Jefferson sent this document to John Adams, who had served with Jefferson in Paris but in September was Minister to England and living in London. Their work culminated in a treaty with Morocco that was ratified by Congress on 18 July 1787 and is still in force today, making it the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history.

To date, the team has collected more than 400 rare artifacts (18th-century documents, books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other items) related to this project, including eight original editions of the book depicted in the portrait.

One of those books-an inscribed copy purchased from an antiquarian bookseller in Paris in July 2004-may be the very one shown in the painting.

Research continues on the portrait, with emphasis on trying to establish the complete chain of ownership.

The research team has established a website (www.isthisjefferson.org) to help gather additional information on the portrait and make findings available to researchers worldwide. New information will be posted as it becomes available.

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