Thomas Jefferson Life Mask Restoration

The Life Mask Face of Thomas Jefferson – A Photoshop Restoration

The Life Mask Face of Thomas Jefferson – A Photoshop Restoration

What Did Thomas Jefferson Look Like?

In an era with no photography and so many variations among paintings, we are left scratching our heads. Now we can know. Using Adobe Photoshop, I’ve attempted to faithfully reproduce 3rd U.S. President Thomas Jefferson as he might have looked in 1825 using his life mask. We can now see what Jefferson looked like, although no photographs of him exist.

The life mask of Thomas Jefferson was taken from a plaster mold of his head created by John Henri Isaac Browere.

1“On October 15, 1825, there appeared at Monticello, the home of the venerable Thomas Jefferson, one John Henri Isaac Browere, sculptor and celebrity hunter. He had come, he announced, to make a likeness of Mr. Jefferson. Browere had already gained some degree of fame for his busts of well-known people. Not carved from wood or chiselled from marble, these busts were cast of plaster, in the European manner, from molds taken of the features of living subjects. He made the molds with a grout whose formula he himself had concocted and which he jealously guarded.”

2“Critics were divided on the merits of Browere and his technique, some deriding him as a mere mechanic and calling his New York studio a “plaster factory.” But none could deny that his work achieved a stark realism uncommon in that day. His plaster busts showed the age-lined brow, the pock-marked face; his subjects appeared as they were, not as artists generally portrayed them. His life masks were, and remain, the most authentic likenesses of some historic figures who lived in a day before photography provided more easily obtained but similarly uncompromising portraits.”

Thomas Jefferson Life Mask
Source: Thomas Jefferson, 1825, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), Plaster, H: 26.27 x W: 18.5 x D: 10.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0209.1961. Photograph by Richard Walker. (Used By Permission)

Life Mask Restoration

Below is the Photoshop restoration of Jefferson’s life mask.

Remarkably, Jefferson showed little wrinkles for his advanced age in 1825. The life mask has a lot of pitting on the surface of which I removed in this restoration.

Thomas Jefferson Face Life Mask Reconstruction
Life Mask Photoshop Reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson

3“There seems to be no consensus on Thomas Jefferson’s eye color. His eyes were variously described by family, friends, employees, and others as blue, gray, “light,” hazel, and combinations thereof.”

I studied a few of Jefferson’s paintings when attempting to place his eyebrows. Some paintings show his eyebrows to be dark even into old age. I tried to shape his brows according to the contours of the mask, taking into account that the plaster may have pressed his eyebrows a bit.

Thomas Jefferson Life Mask transition
Overlay transition of the image of Thomas Jefferson’s life mask restoration.

The casting of Jefferson’s life mask did not go well; he almost suffocated as a result.

4″Jefferson wrote to James Madison of the ordeal on October 18, 1825: I was taken in by Browere. he said his operation would be of about 20. minutes and less unpleasant than Houdon’s method. I submitted therefore without enquiry but it was a bold experiment on his part on the health of an Octogenary, worn down by sickness as well as age. successive coats of thin grout plaistered on the naked head, and kept there an hour, would have been a severe trial of a young and hale person. he suffered the plaister also to get so dry that separation became difficult & even dangerous. he was obliged to use freely the mallet & chisel to break it into pieces and get off a piece at a time. these thumps of the mallet would have been sensible almost to a loggerhead. the family became alarmed, and he confused, till I was quite exhausted, and there became real danger that the ears would separate from the head sooner than from the plaister. I now bid adieu for ever to busts & even portraits.”

Portrait Comparison

5According to Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Sarah N. Randolph, the left portrait below made from a painting by Gilbert Stuart is considered the best likeness of him. Hopefully, my Photoshop restoration on the right captures a “new” true likeness of Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson Portrait/Life Mask Comparison
Source: Left portrait – Project Gutenberg (Public Domain)

See Part II….

Did J. I. Browere Almost Suffocate Thomas Jefferson?

Click the logo to see all of my Photoshop creations: Digital Yarbs Logo

Like and Subscribe to Digital Yarbs
Like Digital Yarbs on Facebook

Follow Digital Yarbs on Twitter

Subscribe to the Digital Yarbs Youtube Channel

Life Mask Photoshop Reconstructions
Before photography, life masks gave us the perfect likeness of people. Plaster was applied to the head and sometimes upper torso to create a mold to cast the life mask of a person. Using life masks, I was able to complete a forensic/academic study of how the subjects most likely appeared using Adobe Photoshop to add flesh, hair, and other details.
Intimate History Tours
Intimate History Tours sprang from an Adobe Photoshop graphic novel I created using James Madison as a fictional character. The graphic novel became too long and challenging, so I decided to focus on shorter blog posts with different personages from history. I visit a historical location and then “Photoshop” a virtual tour in which you and I get to meet folks from history.
The Madison Project
It all started with a graphic novel aimed at a Star Trek, Star Wars fan base who may not otherwise consider historical fiction. One could read this novel and get a historically accurate account of James Madison intertwined with a good science fiction story. The Madison project is a series of blog posts featuring select images from that effort as well as a Second Amendment meme centered around Madison.
What started as a fictional graphic novel has led me to an in-depth study and curiosity to know everything about him, including what he looked like. Anyway, doing all this research on Madison and making at least two trips to Montpelier, I feel as if I’ve gotten to know the little fellow and Dolley too!

It’s been fun.

Classic Cars
All things “Old Cars.”
Blast From the Past
Blast from the past is a series of posts about tidbits from the past that I find interesting. Anything could show up here!

Sources & References:
1,2Donald B. Webster, Jr. “The Day Jefferson Got Plastered” American Heritage (1963)
3Thomas Jefferson Monticello. “Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia – Eye Color”
4From Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 18 October 1825,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019,
5Sarah N. Randolph. “The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson” Harper Brothers Publishers. New York. 1871.

Original Life Mask Image Source: Source: Thomas Jefferson, 1825, John Henri Isaac Browere (1790-1834), Plaster, H: 26.27 x W: 18.5 x D: 10.5 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, N0209.1961. Photograph by Richard Walker. (Used By Permission)

Copyright symbol in a light bulbCopyright & Disclaimer:

While most transformed image compositions on this site fall under a Creative Commons license and are shareable with attribution, the images in this post are restricted. The original life mask image of Thomas Jefferson is copyright Richard Walker of the Fenimore Art Museum, and the Digital Yarbs Photoshop restorations are restricted to internet and video use of exclusively per agreement with Fenimore Art Museum. Permission for image use must be obtained from both Digital Yarbs and Fenimore Art Museum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *