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Jefferson's Paris

The ambassador from an infant republic spent five enchanted years in the French capital at a time when monarchy was giving way to revolution. Walking the city streets today, you can still feel the extravagant spirit of the city and the era he knew.


“Paris is every day enlarging and beautifying,” Thomas Jefferson noted with satisfaction during his residence there as minister to France. The city under construction was a delight to Jefferson, the art patron and amateur architect. He had arrived in 1784, determined to commission the finest living artists to glorify the birth of the American republic. Lafayette, Washington, John Paul Jones, and other heroes of the Revolution were to be immortalized by David, or perhaps by Madame Vigée-Lebrun. The sculptor Houdon had already done a bust of Washington; now he was to execute a statue of the Commander in Chief influenced by the equestrian statue of Louis XV in the Place de la Concorde (then Place Louis XV)—“the best in the world” in Jefferson’s judgment.

Jefferson’s ambitions for the new nation’s architecture were no less exalted. Although he came to Paris with a copy of his plans for a Virginia state capitol rolled under his arm, Jefferson was eager to learn more from European architecture, old and new. To that end he became an avid explorer of the Paris streets. He would take time every day to watch the construction of his favorite new building, the Hôtel de Salm (now the Palais de la Légion d’honneur). Like a man in love, Jefferson confessed, he could not keep his eyes off the site.

“I was violently smitten with the hôtel de Salm,” he wrote to his friend Madame de Tessé, “and used to go to the Tuileries almost daily to look at it. The loueseuse des chaises [the attendant who rented out seats on the public terrace] … never had the complaissance to place a chair there; so that sitting on the parapet, and twisting my neck around to see the object of my admiration, I generally left it with a torticollis [a stiff neck].”

In his architectural observations Jefferson’s tone is an endearing combination of self-mockery and the hyperbole with which he was often charged. He takes on the persona of a lovesick swain, helplessly in thrall to the charms of the latest building he has seen. In the south of France, he gazed at the Maison Carrée in Nîmes “like a lover at his mistress,” having made an arduous solitary carriage journey to see the Roman ruins.

The flesh-and-blood presence of the English artist Maria Cosway lent a romantic urgency to his tours in and around Paris. “How gay did the face of nature appear!” he wrote in a letter recalling his outings with her. “Hills, valleys, chateaux, gardens, rivers, every object wore its liveliest hue! Whence did they borrow it? From the presence of our charming companion.” In the less romantic company of John Adams, he visited the gardens of England and found them, like most things English, overpraised. It was the great regret of his one European sojourn that he did not venture as far as Rome, his mecca.

Jefferson was forty-one when he went to Paris. His wife, Martha, had died two years before, leaving him in a state of grief so acute that friends urged a change of scene. Jefferson accepted the post of trade minister to France under Ambassador Benjamin Franklin, charged with reducing French tariffs on tobacco, rice, and whale oil and negotiating with the Barbary pirates. When the seventy-nine-year-old Franklin soon decided to return home, Jefferson became ambassador, the occasion for a famous bit of Jeffersonian gallantry: To the question “‘It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?’ I generally answered ‘no one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.’” He stayed in Paris as ambassador long enough to watch the first months of the French Revolution, leaving in September 1789.

Ambassador Jefferson kept a coach and horses, but he had acquired the habit of walking as he went about his daily business. It began as a health regimen. Though six feet two, with the frame of a Virginia backwoods-man, Jefferson was in poor health during his first six months in Paris. Fevers and headaches confined him to his house for most of that winter. Downplaying his illness as the Paris “seasoning,” Jefferson embarked on a program of walking as his cure.

Today’s visitor to Paris can follow Jefferson’s route from his house on the rue de Berri, down the Champs-Elysées, and across the Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries gardens. The essential layouts of Jacques Ange Gabriel’s square and André Le Nôtre’s formal gardens are little altered. In the Place de la Concorde the equestrian statue of Louis XV was pulled down in 1792 and replaced by today’s politically neutral obelisk. The Palace of the Tuileries is gone, as well as the swing bridge Jefferson would have used to enter the gardens, then separated from the square by a moat. But the same horseshoe-shaped ramp leads up to the Terrasse du Bord de l’Eau. We can stand on this terrace, where Jefferson acquired his stiff neck, and look out over the Seine.

The view of the center of Paris displays the same landmarks he would have seen: from left to right, the bulk of the Louvre, the Ile de la Cité with Notre-Dame, the Pont Neuf, which was then being stripped of its houses, the Royal Mint, the dome of the Institut de France, the Pont Royal, and the Hôtel de Salm, the latter’s flags and roof visible to the right of the Musée d’Orsay.

The Palais de la Légion d’honneur, a reconstruction of the original Hétel de Salm, damaged during the 1871 Commune, can be visited when its museum is open. Its grand entrance at the corner of the rue Solférino and the rue de Lille is an example of the purified classicism admired by Jefferson, who found most French classicism too removed from its Roman sources. He envied its builders the whiteness of their stone, although he worried how it would weather. At the back, which he would have studied from his spot across the Seine, is the domed pavilion, its reliefs survivors of the original exterior. The play of strong vertical lines against the curving top of the dome influenced his rebuilding of Monticello; that Virginia home is a legacy of his careful observation of the Paris mansion.

The decade before the French Revolution was a time of feverish investment and sumptuous building in Paris, and Jefferson arrived at the peak of the construction boom. Aristocratic properties were being subdivided to create the residential quarters of the Faubourg du Roule and Chaussée d’Antin, where Jefferson rented a stylish mansion. The Palais Royal had been expanded, and its gardens opened to the public. Construction was under way on the bridge at the Place de la Concorde and the churches of the Madeleine, the Panthéon, and St.-Sulpice. The guidebooks of the day document a profusion of new mansions, theaters, and private gardens, while the royal projects from earlier in the century—the Royal Mint, the Place de la Concorde, Claude Perrault’s east face of the Louvre—were still sights to dazzle the newcomer.

One of Jefferson’s most fateful Paris outings began as a visit to one such site. He met Maria Cosway on a tour of the celebrated dome of the Halle aux Bleds (the Grain Market) at the site of the present Bourse du Commerce at Les Halles. In August 1786 Jefferson had been invited by the American painter John Trumbull to view this four-year-old architectural marvel. Designed by Jacques Molinos and Jacques-Guillaume Legrand, the dome used a system of interlocking boards nicknamed “sticks and chips,” adapted from rural carpentry during the Renaissance. Jefferson was so intrigued by the flexibility and economy of this method, which provided large areas for windows, that he used it in several of his architectural schemes, including a proposed domed market hall for Richmond, Virginia.

Visiting Les Halles Park today, one can easily imagine the scene Jefferson and Cosway encountered in the quarter, which, with its eating places and restaurant supply shops, retains its marketlike atmosphere. This corner of the former Les Halles is still dominated by the magnificent Church of St.-Eustache, then about to be converted into the Revolution’s Temple of Agriculture. Next to the Bourse du Commerce stands one of the most moving remnants of Renaissance Paris. Jefferson and Cosway must have noticed the curious fluted tower, built by Catherine de Médicis as an observatory. Legend has it that the lady herself climbed the narrow stairs to the platform visible on top, where she watched the heavens in the company of her astrologer.

That day, Jefferson was so intrigued by Maria Cosway that he canceled his dinner engagement with the Duchesse de La Rochefoucauld, telling an uncharacteristic lie, and a transparent one at that, about the weight of his diplomatic correspondence. When their tour of the Halle aux Bleds was over, he proposed an excursion of his own, sweeping Cosway and her party off to dinner at the Palais Royal and then to a fireworks display. History will never cease speculating about the nature of Jefferson’s attachment to this delicate blonde beauty. An artist and musician of considerable talent, the twenty-seven-year-old Maria maintained a marriage of convenience to the wealthy artist Richard Cosway, a successful society miniaturist, well known as a libertine and commonly described as resembling a monkey. Although many writers have treated the Jefferson-Cosway triangle, the most convincing account of it appears in Max Byrd’s 1993 novel Jefferson, a psycholigically astute portrait of the man during these years.

While Richard Cosway was painting the portraits of the Duc d’Orléans’s children, his wife accompanied Jefferson on his architectural tours. One of the country showplaces they visited was the Désert de Retz, a fantastical jardin anglo-chinois, with natural landscaping and twenty follies—imaginative architectural structures—in a variety of historical and exotic styles. Built in 1774 on the edge of the Forest of Marly, in the vicinity of the royal estates west of Paris, it was forgotten after its confiscation during the Revolution. But the garden has been restored over the last ten years, and now the public can see it between April and November. It was the most authentic setting used by the filmmakers James Ivory and Ismail Merchant when they filmed their new movie Jefferson in Paris.

When Jefferson and Cosway made their visit, in September 1786, the garden was famous as the site of the folly known as the Broken Column, a luxurious four-story country house concealed in the base of a colossal Tuscan pillar, whose cracked walls created the illusion of a ruin. With its hidden windows and skylights and irregular roofline, this architectural tour de force was one of the most outlandish follies in Europe, one whose sinister appearance inspired comparisons with the biblical tower of Babel.

Jefferson was enchanted by the boldness of this architectural conceit. “How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column,” he exclaimed later in a letter to Cosway. He was impressed as well by the ingenuity of the design. The column’s intricate plan of circles and ovals within a circle resembles his later floor plans for the rotunda at the University of Virginia and an unbuilt scheme for a legislative house. The design problem is the same: How to create gracefully proportioned rooms within a round building.

Whatever the architectural lessons Jefferson absorbed at the Désert de Retz, he recalled his excursion there with rapture: “How beautiful was every object! the Pont du Neuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the Machine of Marly, the terraces of Saint Germain, the chateaux, the gardens, the statues of Marly, the Pavilion of Louveciennes [all of these tourist attractions that we can still visit today]. … In the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!”

Closer to Paris, the couple toured the gardens and chØteau at Bagatelle, then famous for its experiments in the English gardening style. They examined the interior of the Gabriel mansion that Jefferson particularly admired, the Hôtel de la Marine, bordering the north side of the Place Louis XV (Place de la Concorde), next to the present Hôtel Grillon. The facade of this colossal mansion was one of the “fronts of modern buildings” that Jefferson recommended as models for the future architecture of Washington, D.C. He suggested to L’Enfant that it would be particularly appropriate for the President’s residence. The entire Place Louis XV ensemble, by the architect Gabriel, was the object of Jefferson’s keenest admiration, including its centerpiece, the equestrian statue of Louis XV.

Jefferson had been mulling over the design for a full-figure statue of George Washington by Houdon. Noting the scale of the Louis XV monument, he decided the Washington statue should be near life-size instead of colossal. It was a measure of Jefferson’s taste that he so well understood what we today would call the siting and scaling of a public sculpture, in this case a figure on a level plane, seen both at great distance and at close range. He grasped the apparent paradox that although the square it occupied was large, the statue was better for being small.

Jefferson’s collecting passions, particularly for books, took him to the Left Bank. There, on the Quai des Grands Augustins, were the booksellers from whom he did most of his buying. Near the Pont St.-Michel, his own book Notes on the State of Virginia was published in 1786, by the bookseller Barrois. Jefferson had brought the manuscript of this controversial work with him to Europe and put it in the hands of an English publisher. He then approved a French translation only because he feared it would otherwise be pirated. Curiously, the French translation preceded the London edition by a few months.

On the Quai de Conti, Jefferson became well acquainted with another Left Bank institution, the Hôtel de Monnaies (the Royal Mint), whose workshops had opened in 1775. Jefferson visited the mint to commission medals commemorating the American Revolution. The building, designed by Jacques-Denis Antoine, was one of the few new monuments free of the classical orders. It has changed little since Jefferson’s time, and today’s visitors can tour its Coin Museum as well as its workshops, where medals and collector’s pieces are still manufactured.

Jefferson’s appetite for music and drama took him to the newest places of entertainment—the Tuileries, the boulevards, the Palais Royal, and the Luxembourg quarter. Near the Luxembourg Palace, on August 4, 1786, he attended Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro in the new Théâtre Français (today’s Odéon). The building, by Charles de Wailly and M.-J. Peyre, burned in 1807 but was then replicated, so the theater we visit today is architecturally identical to the one Jefferson knew. Jefferson was an admirer of Beaumarchais’s politically provocative work and bought a copy for his library. He may even have met the author. Beaumarchais, a man of parts who was also an arms merchant, had provisioned the rebels during the American Revolution. When Jefferson arrived in Paris, his bill, an “immense” one, had still not been paid. Beaumarchais went in person to collect it at Jefferson’s house. No one knows if Jefferson was home, but in any event he paid the playwright.

Jefferson’s ambassadorial residence was one of the new mansions on the Champs-Elysées, the Hôtel Langeac, designed by Jean François Chalgrin. Although this was a luxury dwelling built by a fashionable architect, Jefferson had to put his own stamp on the premises. He created a new room and took great care with the furnishings and cooking arrangements. With his daughters Patsy and Polly in a boarding school across the city, the widower Jefferson presided over a refined and convivial bachelor household, giving a temporary home to young Americans, such as his secretary William Short and the painter John Trumbull. On Sundays, when his daughters were home from the convent of Panthemont, friends would drop in for a “family supper.” But we also read of formal dinner parties where the American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Gouverneur Morris mixed with Parisian aristocrats, intellectual ladies, and men of science.

Like every man of fashion in Paris, Jefferson frequented the Palais Royal gardens. This teeming center of pleasure, commerce, and political discussion had opened the year he arrived in the city, and he enjoyed watching construction continue on the underground circus, beneath the present back garden. A successful real estate venture by the Duc d’Orléans, the Palais Royal inspired Jefferson the architect with dreams of a prosperous shopping and entertainment complex at Virginia’s capital, Richmond. As a consumer, Jefferson, like everyone else, would come to the Palais Royal to buy luxurious accouterments and furnishings for his house and to enjoy art exhibitions, concerts, and the theater.

To the scores of shops and eating places that lined the arcades of the Palais Royal gardens in Jefferson’s day, the only bona fide successor is the sumptuous restaurant Le Grand Vôfour, in the quarters of the Café de Chartres. But one still feels the extravagant spirit of his century in the merchants of these dusty arcades: the purveyors of medals and items of heraldry, the printers of calling cards emblazoned with family crests, the boutiques specializing in toy soldiers. There is a shop, brand new, that sells nothing but eighteenth-century gentlemen’s vests.

The film Jefferson in Paris places the ambassador in the Palais Royal just before his departure for home in September 1789. In the movie we witness an incendiary political speech in the gardens there. It is a historically fitting touch, a signal of the violence about to engulf Jefferson’s Paris, but there is no evidence that Jefferson himself was present. He was reluctant to admit that the French political experiment might reach such extremes, even though his own coach was confronted by a mob two days before the storming of the Bastille, caught in an exchange between the cavalry and angry citizens. He did not depart to flee the Revolution; he intended to return after a six-month leave of absence. Once back in America, however, he was asked to become Secretary of State in George Washington’s cabinet. Jefferson never saw Paris again.

Diana Ketcham is an architecture critic in San Francisco. Her book Le Désert de Retz: A Late Eighteenth-Century French Folly Garden was published by the MIT Press in 1994.

American Heritage, April 1995