Thomas Jefferson

French (Paris)
Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828)


56.5 x 48 x 26 cm (22 1/4 x 18 7/8 x 10 1/4 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Stone; marble

On View

Kristin and Roger Servison Gallery (Gallery 133)





Saravezza marble on gray and white marble base. Head turned slightly to the sitter’s left. Contemporary costume coat with standing collar, waistcoat with buttons, stock. Long hair tied at nape of neck; part of bow knot missing.

The best-known likeness of the man who would be elected president in 1800, this bust captures the keen intelligence of the sitter and demonstrates Houdon’s superb talent for characterization. In 1785 Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) succeeded Benjamin Franklin as American minister to France. Jefferson immersed himself in the artistic and cultural life of Paris, studying firsthand neoclassical architecture and actively collecting books, prints, and works of art. Houdon, described by Jefferson as “perhaps the foremost artist in the world,” executed this startlingly lifelike bust in Paris shortly before Jefferson returned to the United States to assume the position of secretary of state.


Signed and dated "houdon f 1789".


By the late 18th century, Count Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (b. 1754- d. 1836), Château de Paray, Melun, France [see note 1]; 1839, by descent to Jacques Louis Leopold de Chateauvieux (d. 1868), Melun; 1868, by inheritance to his son, Ferdinand Le Clercq de Chateauvieux [see note 2]; 1916, by inheritance to his son, P. Le Clercq de Chateauvieux; 1928, sold by Le Clercq de Chateauvieux to Jean L. Souffrice, Neuilly-sur-Seine [see note 3]; 1934, sold by Souffrice, through the Marie Sterner Gallery, New York, to the MFA for $35,000. (Accession Date: April 5, 1934)

[1] The provenance of this object is taken from the translation of a statement signed by its former owner, P. Le Clerq de Chateauvieux (May 3, 1934; copy in MFA curatorial file). The sculpture is said to have been in the possession of the Destutt family at the end of the 18th century; "Monsieur de Destutt was a great friend of Jefferson who presented him with this bust before leaving France to return to America." This statement has not been verified; it has also been suggested that it was commissioned from the artist by the Destutt family (letter from Alfred L. Bush, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Princeton, to the MFA, October 27, 1959). Leclerq de Chateauvieux writes that the sculpture passed into his family's collection in 1839, by descent and continues, "This bust was in my family home in Melun until 1869 and then became the possession of my father Ferdinand Le Clerq de Chateauvieux .... I inherited this bust at the death of my father in 1916."

[2] This is verified by the translation of a statement addressed to the Intendant, Hôtel de Chateauvieux, Melun, signed by M. Villeminaux (April 16, 1868; copy in MFA curatorial file).

[3] P. Leclerq de Chateauvieux (as above, n. 1) states that he decided to sell the bust when he received a commission to go to Morocco. When it was authenticated by Georges Giacometti, Paris (December 9, 1929, copy in MFA curatorial file), it is said to have remained in the Château de Paray until 1928. In a letter from Jacques Furst, Marie Sterner Gallery, to the MFA (March 30, 1934), it is said to have been purchased "by the present [gallery]" in 1928. Sterner Gallery acted as Souffrice's agent in the sale of the sculpture in 1934.

Credit Line

George Nixon Black Fund