Thomas Jefferson's Physical Appearance:

Did He Look Like the Subject in the

1785 Delapierre Portrait?


Detail from 1785 Delapierre portrait.

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, from life, 1791-1792, detail. (Courtesy of the Independence National Historical Park.)

Thomas Jefferson's physical appearance as a middle-aged adult—based on descriptions by his contemporaries and on portraits believed to be faithful likenesses—was generally consistent with that of the subject in the 1785 Delapierre portrait. In particular, Jefferson's facial features as depicted in a highly regarded portrait by Charles Willson Peale painted in December 1791 bear strong similarities to those of the Delapierre subject (see comparison above). Indeed, the 1791 Peale portrait arguably resembles the 1785 Delapierre portrait more than it does any of the authenticated "life" portraits of Jefferson.1

Nonetheless, establishing what Jefferson looked like is complicated by observations of his colleagues that his appearance changed appreciably as he aged—and that throughout his adulthood he looked young for his age.2

Consistent with these statements, a portrait of Jefferson painted in London by the American artist Mather Brown in the spring of 1786—during a visit there by Jefferson—made Jefferson look quite a bit younger than his actual age of 43 at the time.3 But that portrait was judged not to be a good likeness by Jefferson's contemporaries.4

However, even a sculpture that was considered to be a relatively good likeness—Jean-Antoine Houdon's iconic 1789 bust of Jefferson, which in 1938 was used as the model for Jefferson's image on the U.S. nickel5—was said by Jefferson's daughter (Martha Jefferson Randolph) to have made him look too old.6 7  


Detail from 1786 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown: "It has no feature like him." – Jefferson's secretary (William Short), 10 September 1788. (Private Collection / Peter Newark Pictures / The Bridgeman Art Library.)

Houdon bust of Jefferson (1789):"… I found fault with Houdon for making you too old…" – Jefferson's daughter (Martha Jefferson Randolph), 16 April 1802. (Christie's auction catalog, 29 May 1987, p.17.)

A factor further complicating comparative analysis of Jefferson's physical appearance using known life portraits of him is the very different way he was depicted by various artists. Some portraits painted within months of each other appear to be of altogether different people.8 As a result, it is difficult to distinguish accurate depictions of Jefferson from idealized ones.

However, thanks in part to the extensive correspondence regarding Jefferson that exists, a composite idea of what he looked like has emerged. But not all features are equally well defined.

Physical Features

Jefferson's hairstyle and hair color varied among his portraits. Although his natural hair color was consistently described as red or sandy red,9 it was often dressed and powdered10—especially while he was in Paris (6 August 178411– 26 September 178912). He complained about the time-consuming process shortly after arriving.13 

The artist John Trumbull, who first painted Jefferson in Paris sometime between 19 December 1787 and 16 February 1788 while visiting him there, depicted Jefferson with red hair.14 But a subsequent version of that portrait by Trumbull, given to Jefferson's friend Angelica Schuyler Church by July 1788, showed Jefferson with powdered hair, curled in horizontal rolls above the ears—consistent with the hairstyle of the subject in the 1785 Delapierre portrait.15

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull, late 1787 or early 1788. (Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; www.metmuseum.org.)

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull circa July 1788. [Courtesy of the White House Historical Association (White House Collection): 54.]

Various contemporaries of Jefferson described his eyes as either blue, light gray, or hazel-blue.16 According to researchers at Monticello, "There seems to be no consensus on Thomas Jefferson's eye color. They were variously described by family, friends, employees, and others as blue, gray, 'light,' hazel, and combinations thereof. An examination of Jefferson's life portraits does not clarify the issue; he is variously depicted with blue, hazel, and even brown eyes."17 (The eyes of the subject in the 1785 Delapierre portrait are blue-gray with a touch of hazel.)

According to various sources, Jefferson's build was consistently described as tall, thin, and (in middle age) erect.18 His grandson (Thomas Jefferson Randolph) said Jefferson was six feet two-and-a-half inches tall.19 And his demeanor was consistently described as dignified.20 Nothing in these descriptions is inconsistent with the subject in the Delapierre portrait.  But because the gentleman in the painting is seated behind a desk and only shown from the waist up, it is difficult to judge relative height and overall posture.

Clothing and Other Items

Another issue of interest to the research team is the green jacket worn by the subject in the 1785 Delapierre portrait. Except for the difference in color, it is similar to a blue jacket worn by Thomas Jefferson as depicted in the 1786 Mather Brown portrait. So Jefferson could have owned the jacket worn by the Delapierre subject, because he was known to wear that style jacket. But the team has not uncovered evidence that Jefferson did indeed own the particular green jacket shown in the portrait.

Jacket worn by subject in 1785 Delapierre portrait.

Jacket worn by Jefferson in 1786 Brown portrait. (Private Collection / Peter Newark Pictures / The Bridgeman Art Library.)

Inkpot depicted in 1785 Delapierre portrait.

The research team also investigated whether the silver-colored inkpot shown in the 1785 Delapierre portrait was an item owned by Thomas Jefferson—perhaps a gift from his wife (Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, who died at Monticello on 6 September 1782) or from a friend such as John Adams. To date, this item has not been associated with Jefferson, and no inkpot of the style shown in the painting has been found. It was, however, judged by an expert to be "pewter and probably 18th century French or Low Countries." 21

Bottom line

Determining what Thomas Jefferson looked like in 1785 is problematic. At best, the research team was able to conclude that nothing in the 1785 Delapierre portrait rules out Jefferson as the subject, and that the Delapierre subject's overall looks are consistent with those attributed to Jefferson.

References and notes

[1] For illustrations of the acknowledged "life" portraits of Thomas Jefferson and detailed discussions of the relative iconographic importance of each, see Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View…The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, by Alfred L. Bush, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 9-100.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, Vantage Books, New York, 1998, pp. 76, 141, 275.

[3] Image of the Mather Brown portrait of Jefferson from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

[4] In a letter from John Trumbull to Thomas Jefferson dated 6 March 1788: "Brown is busy about the pictures.  Mr. Adam's is like.  Yours I do not think so well of." [The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 12, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1955, p. 647.] Jefferson's reply dated 18 May 1788: "You say mine [my portrait] does not resemble.  Is it a copy?  Because he agreed that the original should be mine, and it was that I paid him for." [Boyd, Volume 13, 1956, p. 178.] Trumbull's reply dated 23 May 1788: "…I believe what He means to send you of yourself to be the copy, and that Mr. Adams thus the original." [Boyd, Volume 13, p. 199.] Finally, in a letter dated 10 September 1788 from William Short (Jefferson's Secretary in Paris, 1786-1789) to Trumbull in London: "The picture by Brown of Mr. Adams is an excellent likeness; that of Mr. Jefferson is supposed by every body here to be an étude. It has no feature like him." [Boyd, Volume 14, 1958, p. 365.]

[5] Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1993, pp. 230-231.

[6] In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 16 April 1802, his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph said of the bust: "…I found fault with Houdon for making you too old…" (see Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Houdon Bust).

[7] Houdon's 1789 bust of Jefferson, which is now at Monticello, was owned by O. Roy Chalk, who also owned the 1785 Delapierre portrait.

[8] For example, compare below the portrait of Jefferson painted at Monticello by Charles Peale Polk in November 1799 with the Jefferson portrait painted in Philadelphia by Rembrandt Peale in early 1800. (See Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View…The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, by Alfred L. Bush, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 50-58.)

November 1799 portrait of  Thomas Jefferson by Charles Peale Polk.

Early 1800 portrait of Thomas  Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale. [Courtesy of the White House Historical Association (White House Collection): 55.]

[11] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 7, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953, p. 2.

[12] Ibid., Volume 15, 1958, p. 2.

[13] According to Abigail Adams in a letter to her uncle (Cotton Tufts) dated 8 September 1784—33 days after Jefferson arrived in Paris: "He [Thomas Jefferson] expects not to live above a Dozen years and he shall lose one of those in hair dressing. Their [sic] is not a porter nor a washer woman [in Paris] but what has their hair powdered and drest every day. Such is the Jeu [game]." (See Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Papers Digital Editions, Abigail Adams to Cotton Tufts.)

[14] Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View…The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, by Alfred L. Bush, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 23-26.

[15] John Trumbull's life portrait of Thomas Jefferson, painted sometime between 19 December 1787 and 16 February 1788, was incorporated directly into Trumbull's historical panorama, The Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776. It shows Jefferson as Trumbull estimated he might have looked more than 11 years before the image was created, as part of the group who helped craft the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Trumbull later used that image of Jefferson to create three oil-on-wood miniature portraits: one for Jefferson's friend Maria Cosway, one for Jefferson's friend Angelica Schuyler Church, and one for Jefferson's daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View…The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, by Alfred L. Bush, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 23-26.)

[16] Edmund Bacon, the overseer at Monticello from 29 September 1806 until 15 October 1822—and who began working for Jefferson on 27 December 1800—said that Jefferson "had blue eyes." [Jefferson Reader: A Treasury of Writings About Thomas Jefferson, edited by Francis Coleman Rosenberger, E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1953, p. 67 (interview with Hamilton W. Pierson)]; Francis Calley Gray, a friend of John Adams who visited Jefferson at Monticello in early February 1815, stated that Jefferson "…is quite tall, six feet, one or two inches, face streaked and speckled with red, light gray eyes, white hair…"; several sources stated that, when young, Jefferson had "hazel-blue eyes" [Milton Meltzer, Thomas Jefferson: The Revolutionary Aristocrat, Franklin Watts, New York, 1991, p. 21.]; Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, in a letter to Henry S. Randall described Jefferson's eye color in later years as "hazel." [Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I, J. B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, 1865, p. 34.]

[21] Correspondence with Matthew Barton, Deputy Director, Sotheby's Olympia Valuations, 30 July 2007.