He was the nation’s third president, founder of the University of Virginia and one of America’s most famous proponents of a man’s right to live, love and worship as he chose. Thomas Jefferson so believed in the idea of liberty that he taught himself architecture and designed some of the nation’s most iconic buildings to represent new notions of freedom.
Yet, Jefferson could not have created them or his legacy without enslaving hundreds of men, women and children to make his dreams come true.
That dichotomy is the focus of the Chrysler Museum of Art’s “Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principals and the Conflict of Ideals,” which opened this weekend.
The exhibition is curated by the Chrysler and is its largest undertaking in size and scope.
It spans Jefferson’s life and shows his interest, perhaps, obsession with form and design through a comprehensive assortment of his influences and the results. The exhibition includes more than 120 items like books owned by Jefferson, paintings from the Chrysler’s collection, early photographs, maps and structural elements made by free blacks and the enslaved. The Chrysler pulled internationally, nationally and around the state, and will feature models from the Palladio Museum in Italy, artifacts from the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art, several historical societies, the College of William and Mary, University of Virginia and two of Jefferson’s homes, Monticello near Charlottesville and Poplar Forest in Bedford County.
Thomas Jefferson (American, 17431826) Rotunda (Library) University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia (Philip Scalia / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo)
Jefferson’s plans didn’t always go over well. Models of his unsuccessful bids to design the White House are included in the show. Jefferson did expand and improve on the president’s residence when he moved in in 1801. The exhibition also will show how his plans for Monticello, the state capitol in Richmond and the University of Virginia became templates of American architecture.
The idea for the show started in Italy.
Erik Neil, Chrysler’s director, attended an exhibition about three years ago at the Palladio Museum, which examined Jefferson’s admiration for 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio.
Neil believed that American audiences would appreciate the show but he would have to dive into the complex person that is Jefferson.
Jefferson is considered a genius, the author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, an inventor and an innovator in science and agriculture. But he also owned hundreds of slaves while often publicly condemning slavery as a “moral depravity.” He wrote that he thought blacks were inferior to whites yet he fathered six children with one of his slaves.
Mather Brown (American, 1761?1831) Thomas Jefferson, 1786 Oil on canvas National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. (photo by Mark Gulezian/NPG)
“I know here in the United States and Virginia you cannot not address that issue,” Neil said. “It’s part of what we’re trying to do now in understanding Jefferson.”
When he started developing the exhibition, Neil had no idea of how relevant the topics of race, racism, slavery and America’s birth through it would be.
A year into the planning, white supremacists descended on the U.Va. campus and marched around a statue of Jefferson and the Rotunda, a signature building of Jefferson’s design. The supremacists were protesting the city’s decision to remove a Confederate monument.
The exhibition opens as the state is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the first Africans landing in Virginia, the beginnings of institutionalized American slavery.
Neil said he became aware of the bigger lens Monticello and the university are giving in devoting more research and space to the role of African Americans in their histories.
Portions of the university’s online database project, Jefferson’s University Early Life – or JUEL – will be accessible in the exhibition through interactive stations. The project uses the primary documents, including blueprints, faculty minutes, letters and receipts to flesh out the lives of students, staff and the enslaved in the early years of the school.
“It is part of the story that we have to tell,” Neil said.
Jefferson got his first books on architecture after becoming a student at the College of William & Mary in 1760.
Even as he busied himself with law, politics, marriage and running a plantation, Jefferson designed and redesigned Monticello. He used four volumes of Palladio’s books on architecture as a guide.
When he went to Europe in the 1780s as a U.S. minister, he traveled throughout France and Italy studying the Roman relics. The structures survived a fallen empire and time, but were still representative of an ancient people who overthrew its government to form a republic, like the colonies.
Jefferson hated the impermanent nature of America’s wooden buildings.
While in Europe, he submitted plans for the Virginia capitol in 1785 and based them on a Roman temple in Nimes, France.
He expressed to the project managers that adapting the old, refined look would benefit a toddling democracy.
It “would have done honour to our country as presenting to travelers a morsel of taste in our infancy promising much for our mature age,” he wrote.
Neil and Lloyd DeWitt, the Chrysler’s chief curator and Irene Leache curator of European art, said Jefferson preferred simplicity, particularly plain geometric shapes like cubes, spheres and octagons, which are prevalent in his designs.
“He says quite clearly that he wants to make the new republic beautiful,” DeWitt said. “He wants the architects to be trained on how to make much more beautiful buildings. …. He also had more permanent buildings, because he was ashamed of the fact that all the houses were made of wood and kind of melted away after 15 years.”You can visit Jefferson’s tomb at Monticello. Also at the former plantation outside Charlottesville are Jefferson’s artifacts, rooms, slave quarters, and the surrounding plantation. At this site visitors can really get an up-close view of what it might have been like to be a Jefferson. (Dreamstime)
The exhibition, which will be on display through Jan. 20, has other elements to provide historical and modern context. The Community Voices Project is commentary of local people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds giving their views on different objects in the show; visitors will be able to access the link on mobile devices to play while viewing those particular pieces.
The short film “Tropikos” by British filmmaker John Akomfrah looks at Britain’s role in the Transatlantic slave trade. It opened in the summer in anticipation of the Jefferson show. A photography exhibition by Keris Salmon, “We Have Made These Lands What They Are: The Architecture Slavery,” opens in November.
“What is heartening is the intense interest and the fact that new audiences are being brought into these debates,” DeWitt said. “We feel very fortunate to be right here with this project when this is happening. We want to be the forum for that discussion; we want that to take place here.”
Mabel O. Wilson and Louis P. Nelson in Conversation
2 p.m. Saturday, October 26
Scholars Mabel O. Wilson and Louis P. Nelson will discuss the contributions and legacy of enslaved craftsmen on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson. Wilson is a professor of architectural design at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in African American Studies and co-directs Global Africa Lab. Nelson is the Vice Provost for Academic Outreach and Professor of Architectural History at the University of Virginia.
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