About the Research Methods


To determine the subject and context of the 1785 Delapierre portrait, researchers on the team sought and continue to seek both direct and indirect (circumstantial) evidence.1 They applied principles of critical thinking by identifying and attempting to refute hypotheses, by using advanced analytic methods (such as event timelines), and by being cognizant of possible biases and taking measures to mitigate these.

Direct Evidence: Of the two evidence types (direct and indirect), the former is preferable. For example, the team would have no doubt whatsoever that the subject is Thomas Jefferson had they uncovered and authenticated a letter from Jefferson to John Adams describing in detail how Jefferson sat for a portrait by B.N. Delapierre in late 1785 and instructed the artist to include Mirabeau's book, De la Caisse d'Escompte, in the foreground.

Likewise, similar information indicating a subject other than Jefferson would be equally compelling and useful to the researchers.

But to date, although enticing documentation has been uncovered favoring the current hypothesis—that the sitter is Jefferson and the painting's context involves early work on a U.S. treaty with Morocco—the researchers have not found indisputable direct evidence on these issues.

However, leads are being pursued that ultimately might provide irrefutable evidence. For example, the researchers have traced the ownership history (provenance) of the portrait back to October 1927 and are working on several promising leads that might permit the earlier provenance to be tracked. 

The chance of uncovering conclusive documentation regarding the portrait's creation will increase considerably if efforts to trace the provenance back to the original owner succeed.  

Indirect (Circumstantial) Evidence: Along with the search for direct evidence, the research team sought and continues to seek indirect evidence—any information from which inferences about the sitter's identity can be drawn.

For example, the book featured prominently in the portrait—De la Caisse d'Escompte—is indirect evidence that the sitter is either the book's author (Honor√© Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau), an acquaintance or admirer of the author, one of the book's contributors, or an advocate of the book's themes. Such indirect evidence helped the researchers limit the range of possible sitters and focus attention on the most promising leads.  

On occasion, as happened in this instance, a large amount of circumstantial evidence emerges that favors a particular hypothesis. Although no unequivocal evidence was uncovered specifying the sitter, the researchers discovered that Jefferson had many attributes that made him a good candidate: physical appearance; admiration of—and correspondence with—the main author of the depicted book; correspondence with each of the three other authors who contributed to the book; beliefs that aligned strongly with the topics discussed in the book; laudatory mention of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in the main author's previous book; involvement with the subject that appears to be the topic of the letter being written by the sitter; and various other more subtle discoveries that emerged over time. Included among these is a possible request to Jefferson that the painting be done, an entry in one of Jefferson's ledgers that might relate to payment for the painting, and evidence that a now-unlocated early portrait of Jefferson was produced.

However, despite this prevalent indirect evidence, the researchers knew that its utility was dependent on the validity of the logic and assumptions that comprised each inference. For example, in concluding that Mirabeau or the message in De la Caisse d'Escompte had meaning to the sitter, the researchers assumed that the sitter dictated which objects were featured in his portrait. They also assumed that the reason the label on the book was depicted so legibly was that the book was important to the sitter. These assumptions, although reasonable, are assumptions nonetheless.  

Testing Hypotheses: After pursuing initial leads and gathering information, the research team identified a set of plausible hypotheses regarding the identity of the sitter. The leading candidates at first were: Mirabeau (the primary author of the book featured in the painting, De La Caisse d'Escompte); the three contributors who assisted Mirabeau writing the book; individuals associated with the institution "Caisse d'Escompte" ("Discount Bank"); people inclined to be favorably disposed toward the book and/or its primary author; and finally, people known through various sources to have been painted by the artist Delapierre.

For each hypothesis, the team identified a set of necessary conditions that must be true for the hypothesis to remain plausible. For example, if the sitter were Mirabeau, then other likenesses of Mirabeau should resemble the sitter. (They don't.) The same methodology led to elimination of many other candidates.

The approach of trying to refute hypotheses was strictly followed. Upon realizing that Jefferson was a leading candidate for the sitter—based initially on physical appearance—the researchers focused on attempting to eliminate him from the list in much the same way that other potential sitters had been eliminated. They first concentrated on trying to prove that Jefferson and the artist were not in the same location during the period when the portrait was painted. They then focused on trying to make the case that Jefferson didn't know the author of the book, that he was not favorably disposed toward its message, that the writing on the page in the painting had no connection to Jefferson, and so on. This process continued relentlessly for several years.

In each instance, as circumstances were proposed and tested that could have eliminated Jefferson as the sitter, he remained a strong candidate. Moreover, in the process of trying to eliminate Jefferson from contention, the team uncovered letters and other documents that made him an increasingly viable candidate. These are discussed in depth on this website.

Applying Advanced Analytic Methods: To aid hypothesis testing, the researchers organized information into structures that allowed them to uncover useful, non-obvious relationships. For example, when testing whether Jefferson could have sat for the portrait—a necessary condition for being the sitter—the team used Jefferson's meticulous ledgers to create a precise timeline of his whereabouts during the timeframe when the portrait could have been painted, and then mapped this information against Delapierre's approximate whereabouts using documents collected from various sources worldwide.  

Maintaining Objectivity: Despite the researchers' efforts to pursue multiple leads, rigorously test hypotheses, and apply advanced analytic methods, they were keenly aware that their analysis was subject to bias. The team has been working on this project for more than eight years and has a vested interest in the potentially exciting outcome. The same can be said for almost any investigation or analytic assessment. The investigator or analyst is always affected by the outcome, and thus potential outcomes can adversely affect objectivity.

In this case, if the Jefferson hypothesis proves to be valid, the team and the company supporting the research will benefit both financially and through publicity. Therefore, the team is susceptible to being biased toward the Jefferson hypothesis. The only defense against this type of bias is to recognize that it exists and take actions to mitigate its effect.

One way in which we are trying to lessen such partiality is to make our research public through this website—and to solicit alternative perspectives.

References and notes

[1] We based our research on previous scholarly work, original documents, and direct correspondence with authors and experts. The methodological approach and critical-thinking techniques used were developed by members of the team, who have decades of experience doing in-depth analysis for the government and for commercial customers. As part of our investigation, we used resources of—and consulted with personnel at—the following facilities:

A.C. Cooper—Photographers of Mayfair (London, England)
Agnew's Gallery (London, England)
American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Archives municipales [Municipal Archives] (Lyon, France)
Archivio Bardini [Bardini Archives] (Florence, Italy)
Bonhams (San Francisco, California)
Boston Athenaeum (Boston, Massachusetts)
C.G. Sloan & Company (Bethesda, Maryland)
Dobiaschofsky Auktionen [Dobiaschofsky Auctions] (Bern, Switzerland)
Fenwick Library (Fairfax, Virginia)
Frick Art Reference Library (New York, New York)
The Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles, California)
Hillwood Art Research Library (Washington, D.C.)
Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois)
Koller Auktionen [Koller Auctions] (Zurich, Switzerland)
Library Am Guisanplatz (Bern, Switzerland)
The Library Company (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 
Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.) 
Louvre Research Library (Paris, France)
Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston, Massachusetts)
Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York)
Monticello, Curatorial Department (Charlottesville, Virginia)
Musée des arts décoratifs [Museum of Decorative Arts] (Lyon, France) 
Musée des beaux-arts [Museum of Fine Arts] (Lyon, France)
Musée des beaux-arts de Quimper [Museum of Fine Arts of Quimper] (Quimper, France)
Musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie [Museum of Fine Arts and Archeology] (Besançon, France)
Musée Magnin [Magnin Museum] (Dijon, France)
Museo Bardini [Bardini Museum] (Florence, Italy)
National Gallery of Art Research Library (Washington, D.C.)
National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, D.C.)
National Portrait Gallery (Washington, D.C.)
Polo Museale [Museum Complex] (Florence, Italy)
Princeton University (Princeton, New Jersey)
Sotheby's (London, England)
State Tretyakov Gallery (Moscow, Russia)
l'Université Lumière Lyon 2 [Lumière University Lyon 2] (Lyon, France)
Wildenstein & Company (New York, New York)
Witt Library, Courtland Institute of Art (London, England)
Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, Massachusetts)

As of early January 2013, the team had collected more than 400 rare artifacts (18th-century documents, books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other items) related to this project. Though most of these items were obtained from individual sellers, the following firms were especially helpful as we compiled the collection.

A. Gerits & Son (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
Andrew D. Washton—Books on the Fine Arts (Port Chester, New York)
Antiquarian Collections (Charleston, South Carolina)
Antiquariat Bernecker (Bötzingen, Germany)
Antiquariat Dieter Stecher (Egelsbach, Germany)
Argosy—Old & Rare Books, Prints & Maps (New York, New York)
B&W Collector Books (Salt Lake City, Utah)
Between the Covers—Rare Books (Gloucester City, New Jersey)
Bisonscat Books (Villa Park, Illinois)
Blue Nile Books (Leawood, Kansas)
Bookinet (Beziers, France)
Bookster (Baxter Springs, Kansas)
BookZone Illinois (Aurora, Illinois)
Bumpsbarn (Ashland, New Hampshire)
Certain Books (Westhampton, New York)
Clausen Books (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Columbia Books (Columbia, Missouri)
Concordia Books (Rensselaer Falls, New York)
David Hecht, Bookseller (San Francisco, California)
G.S. MacManus Co. (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania)
Henry Berry, Books/Ephemera (Southport, Connecticut)
International Book Sales (Dover, New Hampshire)
Ithaca Books (Ithaca, New York)
Jeffrey Eger Auction Catalogues (Morristown, New Jersey)
Jeffrey H. Marks Rare Books (Rochester, New York)
John Gach Books (Randallstown, Maryland)
Leeflang Archives (Windham, New Hampshire)
Le Hinchet Books & Prints (Montsaunes, France)
Librairie Courant d'Art (Paris, France)
Librairie de Nobele (Paris, France)
Librairie Hatchuel—livres anciens & rares (Paris, France)
Librairie Historique Clavreuil F. Teissèdre (Paris, France)
Librairie La Canopee (Saint-Armand, Quebec, Canada)
Librairie Le Cosmographe (Vernou-sur-Brenne, France)
Librairie Léonce Laget (Paris, France)
Librairie Philippe Sérignan—livres rares et anciens (Avignon, France)
Librairie Picard (Paris, France)
Librairie Prévost (Paris, France)
Librairie St. Marie (Sint-Joost-ten-Node, Belgium)
Librería Comellas (Barcelona, Spain)
L'intersigne Livres anciens (Paris, France)
Mimico Books (Windsor, Ontario, Canada)
Mrbooks (Vineland, New Jersey)
My Bookhaus (Evanston, Illinois)
Naughton Booksellers (Dublin, Ireland)
Nerman's Books and Collectibles (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada)
Pages d'Histoire—Librairie Clio (Paris, France)
Powell's Books (Portland, Oregon)
Princeton Antiques Bookshop (Atlantic City, New Jersey)
Rue Cottage Books (Bass Harbor, Maine)
Tavistock Books (Alameda, California)
The Auction Catalog Company (Alturas, California)
The Catalog Kid (Tinton Falls, New Jersey)
Vashon Island Books (Vashon, Washington)
Weyhe Art Books (Mt. Desert, Maine)
Zubal Books (Cleveland, Ohio)

In addition, we made extensive use of information available on the Internet. As of 28 January 2013, there were 232 external links used for sourcing and background throughout this website—including many that allow researchers to access and read rare texts online.

Finally, we would like to express our sincere thanks to Professor Jeffrey H. Schwartz, who joined the research team in early 2005 and provided wise counsel as the work progressed; and to Guy and Nicole Blanguernon, who translated the book shown in the portrait (Comte de Mirabeau's 1785 pamphlet De la Caisse d'Escompte) from French into English.