Collection An Artist Visits the White House Past
From its construction in 1792, until the 1902 renovation that shaped the modern identity and functions of the interior of the White...
For nearly twenty seven years, a full-length bronze sculpture of Thomas Jefferson was displayed at the center of the North Lawn in front of the White House. It was a feature that dominated the view from Pennsylvania Avenue and appeared prominently in engravings, paintings, and photographs of the period. The work of well-regarded French sculptor, Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856), the statue was a gift to the nation in 1834 from a naval officer and Jefferson admirer, Uriah Phillips Levy, intended for view in the Capitol Rotunda. Congressional indecision and bickering led to an uncertain future for the statue, and, with the approval of President James K. Polk, the statue found its way to the White House grounds. In 1873, the bronze sculpture, in poor condition from years of weathering the exterior elements, was relocated to make way for a fountain on the newly landscaped North Lawn. A renewed interest in the statue resulted in removal from the White House in 1874, treatment, and formal acceptance into the Capitol collection.
Uriah Phillips Levy (1792–1862), the man behind the sculpture commission, was a career United States Navy officer and wealthy New York real estate investor. Born in Philadelphia, Levy began a career at sea when, at the age of ten, he ran away to serve as a cabin boy on a trading ship. He joined the U.S. Navy during the War of 1812 as a sailing master, one of only a few Jewish officers in the Navy at the time. He rose through the ranks to captain in spite of anti-Semitic prejudice faced during his career. He was court-martialed six times because of minor infractions. In three instances, he was dismissed from the service, only to be reinstated every time after appeals to Congress and, on one occasion, to President John Tyler. A promoter of human rights, Levy was an advocate to end “flogging” or whipping in the Navy, a common form of corporal punishment eventually abolished in the 1850s.1
During periods of extended leave from the Navy, Levy traveled between the United States and Europe. He moved to New York City in 1828 and successfully invested in real estate at a time when the city was undergoing major expansion. His most important purchase, however, was Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home near Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1836, Levy acquired the neglected estate for $2500, becoming its third owner. Devoted to Jefferson, he wanted to restore the old house and create a national shrine, perhaps marking the beginning of the historic preservation movement in the United States.2
The decision to commission a bronze statue of Jefferson for the nation evolved a few years earlier. A letter written by Levy to Philadelphia ship builder John Coulter in November 1832 explained his reasons.
"I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history—author of the Declaration of Independence and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life. A noble man—yet there is no statue to him in the Capitol in Washington. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to personally commission a statue of Jefferson."
For the project, French sculptor Pierre-Jean David was chosen. Levy visited the artist’s studio in 1832, and David accepted the commission.3
David, also known as David d’Angers, was born March 12, 1788, in Angers, France. The son of a wood carver, David received formal training in Paris and, after winning the Prix de Rome in 1811, continued in Rome where he studied antiquities and the neoclassical style of sculptor Antonio Canova. In 1826, David was appointed a professor at the prestigious École des Beaux Arts. He became an influential proponent of Romanticism and created numerous monuments, portrait busts and profile medallions of prominent men and women of the day. The sculpture produced for the pediment of the Panthéon in Paris, 1830–37, is among his notable works. David was also a political activist who was exiled from France for opposing Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s coup d’état in 1851. Returning to France in 1853, he suffered a career-ending stroke in 1855 and died in Paris following year.4
Levy remained in France on extended leave while the statue was being fabricated. During this period, he met with an earlier acquaintance, the Marquis de Lafayette, who offered his Thomas Sully portrait of Jefferson for the sculptor to use as reference. David completed the clay version in early 1834, and it was cast in bronze by Honoré Gonon and Sons of Paris using the lost wax technique. The full-length statue, measuring over seven feet, portrayed Jefferson with a quill pen in his right hand and a copy of the Declaration of Independence in his left hand. Two books and a laurel wreath were placed between his feet. The bronze base of the sculpture was inscribed, “Presented by Uriah Phillips Levy of the United States Navy to his fellow citizens, 1833.” Struthers of Philadelphia was commissioned to make a pedestal. On February 6, 1834, Levy presented a bronzed plaster copy of his Jefferson statue to the City of New York that today remains in the City Hall Council Chamber.5
In a letter to the House of Representatives dated March 23, 1834, Levy wrote, “I beg leave to present, through you, to my fellow citizens of the United States a colossal bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson.”6 On March 27, 1834, Senator Asher Robbins of Rhode Island, Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, responded in a letter to Lieutenant Levy:
"I have been instructed by the Joint Library Committee of the two Houses of Congress to express to you their thanks for the present you have made to the people of the United States in the colossal bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson. It is every way fit and proper that the statue of the author of the Declaration of American Independence should find a place at its Capitol. This would, doubtlessly, sooner or later, have been ordered by the Representatives of the States and the people. You, sir, have only anticipated their action, and have manifested in so doing a devotion to the principles contained in that celebrated instrument equally felt by all classes of your fellow citizens."
On May 6th of that year, Senator Robbins submitted a report acknowledging receipt of the sculpture and recommended that it be placed in the center of the square on the east side of the Capitol. The Senate considered the report of the Joint Library Committee on May 13, 1834, and resolved, “That the Senate concur therein.”7
During the House debate on the same subject, some members began to question whether or not it was appropriate to have procured a likeness of Thomas Jefferson for the U.S. Capitol before having one of the Father of the Country, George Washington. Others expressed their dislike for the sculpture and felt that it should have been made of marble instead of bronze. Congressman William Segar Archer of Virginia suggested that if Congress had wanted a statue of Jefferson, it would have procured one for themselves rather than be indebted to any person. Nonetheless, the House passed the joint resolution on June 27, 1834, directing the statue to be placed in the square east of the Capitol.8
Placement of the sculpture at the Capitol proved difficult, and it may have moved several times. Although both Houses of Congress had directed that the statue be displayed in a garden on the east side of the Capitol, it was exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda, the donor’s preference. When it was first relocated, is unclear. An article in the December 3, 1841, issue of North American and Daily Advertiser suggested that it was to be moved from the Rotunda to make way for the newly arrived statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), a large marble sculpture commissioned in 1832 to commemorate the centennial of Washington’s birth.9
The option of returning the sculpture to the donor was also offered during congressional debate. Although no action resulted, a resolution was introduced on February 16, 1835, stating:
"Resolved, That the Commissioner on the Public Buildings and Public Grounds be directed to remove the bronze statue of Jefferson from the Rotunda to some suitable place for its preservation, until the final disposition of it be determined by Congress."10
The statue of Thomas Jefferson appears to have been moved to the North Grounds of the White House in 1847 with the approval of President James K. Polk. Polk, a former Congressman and Speaker of the House from 1835 to 1839, would have had knowledge of the sculpture and its history at the Capitol. On the White House lawn, it was placed on a pedestal of stuccoed brick in the center panel directly in front of the North Portico. Fencing along Pennsylvania Avenue and an ornamental iron fence on the north side of the driveway enclosed this section of the North Lawn. An 1848 lithograph of the view seen from Lafayette Park, after a drawing by Augustus Köllner, shows the sculpture on its base encircled by a gravel pathway with shrubbery along the driveway fence and a few scattered trees on the North Lawn. In time, rosebushes were planted by the pedestal. David’s sculpture would be the first bronze sculpture to be exhibited outdoors in Washington, and, to this day, the only likeness of a president to be displayed on the White House grounds.11
In 1873, during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, the Jefferson statue was removed from the North Lawn, and a fountain surrounded by an intricate pattern of walkways and flowerbeds was added. The new landscaping featured a geometrical design in the shape of a pinwheel outlined with flower beds, including smaller beds shaped like moons and stars. The fountain was placed in the center of the motif, the former site of the David sculpture.12
The statue, in poor condition from outdoor exposure, was relocated to the east side of the White House grounds presumably in 1873 when work began on the North Lawn. The eastern portion of the grounds had been relandscaped in 1866 following the removal of the East Terrace, built under President Thomas Jefferson in 1808. A fountain had been added between the White House and the Treasury Department, by the street now called East Executive Avenue, with steps and pathways that provided access to the mansion as well as the North and South Grounds. The sculpture was placed in front of the East Entrance, a location documented by a stereograph from the period showing an empty pedestal.
Nearly forty years after the arrival of the statue to Washington, questions remained about the Levy donation. Jonas P. Levy, the late Uriah Levy’s brother, sent a letter dated February 16, 1874, to the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds and said:
"My brother then had the present bronze statue brought to this city of Washington, at his own expense, and it was placed in the center of the rotunda of the Capitol, (where it should have remained,) and presented to the Congress of that date. Objections were made by Congress to receiving a present from an officer of the United States Navy, and, consequently, the statue was removed from the Capitol, and, by permission of President Polk, placed in the President’s grounds in the north front, where it remained until recently."
Then suggesting that the sculpture had never been properly received, Levy added:
"If the statue is not accepted by Congress, I have to request, as one of the heirs to the said property and its recent owner, that the statue may be turned over to us with as little delay as possible, and in as good condition as it now appears in. Besides it being the only thing at the national capital, except the Declaration of Independence, which we have to perpetuate the memory of the great statesman, we will preserve it, that it may bring to generations to come the memory of the great men of our great and glorious Union."13
Noting the confusion about the acceptance of the gift, Senator Justin S. Morrill, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, proposed that all doubt be removed and stated:
"The statue for a long time held a place in the rotunda of the Capitol, but was removed during the administration of President Polk to the front of the Executive Mansion, and it now stands on the grounds east of the Executive Mansion. The bronze of which it was made, judging from present appearances, cannot have been of the best quality, and from recent exposure in the open air to the weather has received some injury which will be likely to be increased if it should so remain. If placed under cover, with a small expenditure for cleaning and the repair of some defects, it would at least be restored to a position where it would not be seemingly an object of neglect and reproach."
Senator Morrill asked that Congress offer a resolution to properly receive the statue and restore its appearance, or return it to the donor’s family.
"The act of Lieutenant Levy was an honest effort to do honor to one of our earliest and most distinguished American statesmen, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and as such is entitled, from first to last, to be treated with due consideration. It was a liberal gift of an officer of the Navy, then young, which did not at the time meet with a rebuff, though coldly greeted by some of the Representatives of Virginia, and is deserving of none now; but it was, at one time or another, accepted by each House of Congress, and with the courteous thanks of the Joint Committee on the Library.
"The present condition of the statue very naturally awakened the solicitude of the brother of the late Commodore Levy, who properly desires to reclaim it, if it has been or shall be rejected, and furnishes a fit occasion to rectify the congressional record upon the subject, as well as for the adoption of some measure for the preservation of a gift made to the citizens of the United States."
On March 18, 1874, Congress passed a resolution to accept the statue and appropriated funds for its repair.
"Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, That the bronze statue presented in 1834 by Lieutenant Uriah P. Levy, of the United States Navy, of Thomas Jefferson, be accepted with grateful appreciation, and that the officer in charge of public buildings and grounds be directed to properly prepare and place the same in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol."14
The sculpture was removed from the White House grounds and underwent conservation in 1874. After treatment, it was returned to the Capitol and placed in National Statuary Hall. In 1900, David’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was moved back to the Rotunda. Although the White House briefly explored the possibility of again borrowing the statue in 1961, it has remained in the Rotunda to this day.15
The artwork of Pierre-Jean David, a prolific artist, continues to be well recognized in many public collections. In David’s hometown of Angers, his work is celebrated in a gallery now housed in a former church, Abbey Toussaint. Several examples of David’s work can also be seen in Washington, D.C. In addition to the full-length sculpture of Jefferson, the U.S. Capitol has a bronze bust of George Washington and a marble bust of General Lafayette.16 In the Thomas Jefferson State Reception Room, part of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms in the U.S. Department of State, there is a large resin-fiberglas copy of David’s Jefferson statue, measuring over six and a half feet in height, made in 1974 by Arthur Bruce Hoheb. Eight examples of David’s work are also found in the National Gallery of Art, including a nearly sixteen-inch high bronze maquette of the Jefferson sculpture, cast after 1892 from the model dated 1832–33, and an 1833 bronze portrait medallion of Uriah Levy.17
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