Did J. I. Browere Almost Suffocate Thomas Jefferson?
The popular belief is that Thomas Jefferson almost suffocated during the creation of his life mask. Is this really true?
Note: the following is copied verbatim from Charles Henry Henry Hart. Some spellings differ from modern usage.
Mr Browere … is so anxous [sic] to pay his respects to you that I can not refuse him a line of introduction His object is to take your likeness in plaster…. – James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, October 14, 18251
J. I. Browere’s 1825 life masks of Thomas Jefferson – Source: Cheryl A. Daniel, with special thanks to Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown N.Y.
Charles Henry Hart said, “I had been familiar, for years, with the tragic story told by Henry S. Randall, in his ponderous life of President Jefferson, of how the venerated sage of Monticello, within a year of his decease, was nearly suffocated, by ‘an artist from New York,’ by name Browere, who had attempted to take a mask of his living features; and how, in fear of bodily harm from the ex-President’s irate black body-servant, “the artist shattered his cast in an instant,” and was glad to depart quickly with the fragments which he was permitted to pick up.”2
“This unvarnished tale, copied word for word, was put into the mouth of Clark Mills, the sculptor, by Ben Perley Poore, and published by him, some years later, under the caption of ‘Jefferson’s Danger.’ With these statements fixed in my mind, I came across, while searching for information anent my article on the ‘Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson,’ a letter from James Madison to Henry D. Gilpin, written October 25, 1827, in which Madison writes, respecting Jefferson’s appearance, ‘Browere’s bust in plaster, from his mode of taking it, will probably show a perfect likeness'”3
“I was struck by the utter inconsistency of Randall’s circumstantial account of the shattered cast, picked up in fragments, with Madison’s pointed observations upon ‘Browere’s bust,’ as being in existence fifteen months after Jefferson’s death.”4
“The latter directly negatived the former.”
“This made it both interesting and important to ascertain the exact status of the subject, by tracing it to and from the fountain source, a task I found comparatively easy through the calendars of Jefferson and Madison Papers, in the State Department, at Washington. From an examination of these manuscripts, together with the newspapers of the time, it was clearly to be seen that Mr. Randall’s method of writing history, was to accept and repeat irresponsible country gossip, rather than to turn to documents at his hand, that would explain and refute the gossip.”5
“The existence at one time of the bust of Jefferson, from Browere’s life mask, being thus established, the next and more difficult quest was to discover its whereabouts, if still extant. I instituted a systematic search, that gained for me among my friends the sobriquet of Sherlock Holmes, and my persistency was finally rewarded not only by the discovery of this bust of Jefferson, but also of all the other busts that had remained in Browere’s possession at the time of his death. They were in the custody of a granddaughter of the artist, on a farm near Rome, New York.”6
“The positive statement of Randall, frequently repeated by others, the last time unequivocally by Mr. Laurence Hutton, in his ‘Portraits in Plaster,’ that Browere’s mask from Jefferson’s face was destroyed, and the indisputable fact that the bust from the perfect mask exists and is here reproduced, cause the incidents connected with the taking of this original life mask, to have an importance that justifies recording them at length, so that there may remain no possibility for further question or doubt on the subject. My authorities are Jefferson, Madison and Browere, as preserved in their own autographs, in the State Department, at Washington.”7
Photoshop reconstruction of J. I. Browere’s 1825 Life Mask of Thomas Jefferson.
“Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 and died in 1826, on the semi-centennial of the adoption of the immortal instrument of which he is the recognized father. Through the intercession of President Madison, his friend, neighbor and successor in the chair of state, Jefferson consented, in Browere’s words, “to submit to the ordeal of my new and perfect mode of taking the human features and form.” For this purpose, Browere visited Monticello, on the fifteenth of October, 1825. At this time Jefferson was eighty-two years of age and was suffering the infirmities incident to his advanced years. During the operation, he was attended by his faithful man-servant Burwell, who prepared him for “the ordeal,” by removing all of his clothing to the waist, excepting his undershirt, from which the sleeves were cut. He was then placed on his back, and the material applied down to the waist, including both arms folded across the body. The entire procedure lasted ninety minutes, with rests every ten or fifteen minutes, during which rests Jefferson got up and walked about. The material was on Jefferson’s face for eighteen minutes, and the whole of the mould of his features was removed therefrom in three minutes. This was accomplished before the alarmed entrance of his granddaughters, the Misses Randolph, into the room. They were brought there by their brother, who had been peeping in at the window, and begging for admission, which was denied him. It was the exaggerated report of what young Randolph thought he saw, that induced the sudden entrance of his sisters, and this report found its way subsequently into the local newspapers of Virginia, with the remarkable result indicated.”9
“The intrusion of the Randolphs into the room caused delay in removing other parts of the mould, and this did cause the venerable subject to feel a little faint and to experience some other discomforts. But Browere remained at Monticello overnight, dining with Jefferson and the Randolphs, and chatting with his host through the evening until bed-time, which would scarcely have been the case had the artist nearly suffocated and otherwise maltreated his subject, so that for his safety, the cast had to be shattered to pieces. But we do not have to speculate and surmise. We have direct and unimpeachable proof to the contrary.”10
“The very day on which, according to Randall and his followers, the ‘suffocation’ and “shattering” took place, Jefferson wrote:”
“At the request of the Honorable James Madison and Mr. Browere of the city of New York, I hereby certify that Mr. Browere has this day made a mould in plaster composition from my person for the purpose of making a portrait bust and statue for his contemplated National Gallery. Given under my hand at Monticello, in Virginia, this 15th day of October, 1825.
“A copy of this published letter Browere sent to Jefferson under cover of the following important but effusive epistle:
New York, May 20, 1826.
Most Esteemed and venerable Sir:
As the poet says ‘there are strings in the human heart which once touched will sometimes utter dreadful discord’ Per the public vehicles of information, the ex-President has perceived the very illiberal manner in which my character and feelings have been treated, and that of those of his honor have been unintentionally wounded. Mine have been publickly assaulted, upbraided and lacerated. And why? Because through the error of youth, I unwittingly, in a confidential letter to M. M. Noah, Esq., editor of the New York National Advocate, had written in a style either too familiar or that the whole of said letter (instead of extracts therefrom) had been made public. In my address to the Boston public, the ex-president will perceive I set down naught but facts. That I intended not to wound your feelings or those of the ladies at Monticello, I acknowledged the urbanity of Mr. Jefferson and the hospitality of his family. Possibly the ex-president is not aware that a young gentleman, one of his family, did, previous to my departure from Monticello, (the very afternoon of the day on which I took the bust) go to Charlottesville, and publickly declare I had almost killed Mr. Jefferson, first almost separating the ears, cutting the skull and suffocating him. What were my feelings? What! would not any man of spirit and enterprise resent such assertions and rebut them? I was in this state of feeling when I indited the letter to M. M. Noah, which letter I fear has forfeited me your confidence and regard. But a letter confidential and therefore not to be attributed as malign or censorious.”12
“Your character I have always esteemed, and I now intend evidencing that regard by making a full-length statue of the ‘Author of the Declaration of American Independence,’ which (if the president be not in New York on the 4th of July next) I intend presenting for that day to the Honorable the Corporation of New York, to be publickly exhibited to all who desire to view the beloved features of the friend of science and of liberty.”13
“The attitude of your statue will be standing erect; the left hand resting on the hip; the right hand extended and holding the unfolded scroll, whereon is written the Declaration of American Independence. If possible, History, Painting, Sculpture, Poetry and Fame will be attendant. The portrait busts of Washington, John Adams, Franklin, Madison, John Q. Adams, Lafayette, Clinton and Jay, will be on shields, hung on the column of Independence, surmounted with the figure of Victory. May you enjoy health, peace and competence. May the God of nature continue to shower down his choicest blessings on your head and finally receive you to himself is the prayer of your sincere friend,
H. I. Browere.”14
“This communication Jefferson acknowledged, within a month of his decease, in a letter of such ruling importance in this connection, as it settles the question forever, that I am glad of the opportunity to publish it in full.
Monticello, June 6, ’26.
The subject of your letter of May 20, has attracted more notice certainly than it merited. That the operé to which it refers was painful to a certain degree I admit. But it was short lived and there would have ended as to myself. My age and the state of my health at that time gave an alarm to my family which I neither felt nor expressed. What may have been said in newspapers I know not, reading only a single one and that giving little room to things of that kind. I thought no more of it until your letter brot. it again to mind, but can assure you it has left not a trace of dissatisfaction as to yourself and that with me it is placed among the things which have never happened. Accept this assurance with my friendly salutes.
Photoshop reconstruction of J. I. Browere’s 1825 Life Mask of Thomas Jefferson.
“Four days later President Madison, who, with his wife, was Browere’s next subject, writes: “A bust of Mr. Jefferson, taken by Mr. Browere from the person of Mr. Jefferson, has been submitted to our inspection and appears to be a faithful likeness.” That Jefferson did suffer some inconvenience, from the application of the wet material, is undeniable. Three days after the taking of the mould he wrote to Madison: “I was taken in by Mr. Browere. He said his operation would be of about twenty minutes and less unpleasant than Houdon’s method. I submitted 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 plastered on the naked head and kept there an hour, would have been a severe trial of a young and hale man.”16
“But the newspapers had gotten hold of the ‘suffocation’ and ‘shattering’ story, and any one familiar with the newspapers of that day knows what a scarcity of news there was. Therefore the press over the land laid the Virginia papers tribute for this bit of sensationalism. Richmond, Boston and New York vied with each other in keeping the ball moving. But ‘those teachers of disjointed thinking,’ as Dr. Rush called the public press, were getting too rabid for Browere, so he published, in the Boston ‘Daily Advertiser’ of November 30, 1825, a two-column letter, in which he calls the attack by the ‘Richmond Enquirer,’ the most virulent of his assailants, ‘a libel false in almost all its parts and which I am now determined to prove so by laying before the public every circumstance relating to that operation on our revered ex-president, Thomas Jefferson.'”17
“Notwithstanding this ‘very kind and consolatory letter,’ as Browere had good reason to call it, the report that the venerable Jefferson had been nearly suffocated and otherwise maltreated by the artist, was so widely circulated that Browere’s career was seriously affected by it; and so much easier is it to disseminate error than truth, that his hopes were not fulfilled that the publication of Jefferson’s letter would, as he wrote to Madison, ‘in some manner turn the current of popular prejudice, which at present is great against my modus operandi.'”18
“In acknowledging Jefferson’s letter of the 6th, Browere writes concerning the statue: ‘On the very day of the receipt of yours, the 13th inst., I had completed your full length statue (nudity) and to-morrow I intend, if spared, to commence dressing it in the costume you wore at the time of your delivery of the Declaration of American Independence. Understanding that your dress corresponded with that of Mr. Laurens, President of Congress in 1778, I have commenced the suit. But if Mr. Jefferson would condescend to give a full and explicit account of the form and colour of his dress, at that very interesting period, he will be conferring a particular favor on me and on the whole American Nation. Dispatch in forwarding the same will be pleasing to the Honorable the Common Council of New York, for whom I am preparing your statue for the 4th of July, 1826.'”19
“An examination of such of the New York newspapers of the period as could be found, fails to reveal any mention of this remarkable, colored and habited, statue of Jefferson, our whole knowledge of which is derived from the letters of the artist. It would seem to have belonged to the Eden Musée variety of freaks, from Browere’s own description of it. Here is what he writes to Madison from New York, July 17, 1826: ‘You are aware that two months ago I tendered to the Common Council of New York, my services and those of my son to complete a full length figure or statue of Jefferson. The memorial was unanimously accepted and referred to the Committee on Arts and Sciences, who would superintend its being placed in the Banqueting Room of the Common Council, on the approaching anniversary or jubilee. Without money and without power I was enabled in five weeks of unremitting exertions, to finish and place it in the Hall, exactly at the hour of the dissolution of Mr. Jefferson.’ It may not be unamusing to read a description of his statue in the City Hall banqueting-room.”20
“His lofty and majestic figure standing erect; his mild blue and expressive eyes beaming with intelligence and good will to his fellow men. The scroll of the Declaration, which gave freedom to millions, clutched in his extended right hand, strongly contrasted with the decrepitude of his elder associate, the venerable John Adams, gave an effect to the whole which will not ever be forgotten here. His left hand resting on the hip, gave a carelessness yet dignified ease that pleased thousands. On his right hand was the portrait bust of the venerable Charles Carroll of Carrollton, like that of Adams, clothed with white drapery. Beside and behind these figures were placed various flowers and shrubbery. Immediately over the head of the author of the Declaration of American Independence hovered the American Eagle; a civic crown suspending from his beak was ready to drop on the temples and crown with immortal honors the wisest and best of men. His likeness is perfect. If the congratulations of Governor De Witt Clinton, His Honor the Mayor, the City authorities of New York and the general mass of reputable lives, can affix the seal of truth in likeness, rest assured the beloved features will not soon be forgotten.”21
“Now should the University of Virginia desire to erect in marble or bronze a statue to the memory of its founder be pleased, Sir, to note that I will be ready at all times to complete such a work. Moreover that, should appropriate funds at this period be lacking, it matters not: I will furnish one and await the pleasure of the institution for pecuniary emolument. All that would be required at first, would be a sufficiency to defray actual expenditures for materials and the indispensable requisites to the support of my young family. Should this proposition meet the approval of the visitors of the Virginia University and the citizens at large, a satisfactory answer will meet with my cordial thanks.”22
“Evidently the University of Virginia did not accept Browere’s proposition, as the only statue of its founder and architect, now to be seen there is an extremely bad one by a sculptor named Galt; and no trace of Browere’s curious work has up to the present time been found. Save for the truth of history, silence concerning it would seem to have been most expedient for Browere’s reputation as a serious artist.”23
“Surely this story is as interesting as a romance, and but for fiction it might never have been told. How dare any man assume to write history and set down on his pages such statements, as did Randall about Browere’s mask of the living Jefferson, without first exhausting every channel of inquiry and every means of search and research to ascertain the truth? The material that I have drawn from was as accessible to Mr. Randall as it has been to me; in fact, he claims to have used the Jefferson papers in his compilation. It is true we have acquired more exact and scientific methods of writing history than were in vogue when Randall wrote, a generation or more ago. Yet this will not excuse his positive misstatements and false assumptions. The existence of an opportunity for such severe criticism only serves to emphasize the great necessity of observing the inflexible rule: take nothing for granted and nothing at second hand, without the most careful investigation and scrutiny. If the standard of life’s ordinary action should be the precept “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well,” with what intensified force does it apply to the writing of history! Pains, infinite pains, are the requisites for good work. Nothing meritorious is ever accomplished without hard labor. Toil conquers everything; without it, the result is at best uncertain. While it is some gratification to have set wrong right and done tardy justice to Browere’s reputation, it is a far greater satisfaction to have rescued from oblivion and presented to the world his magnificent facsimile of the face and form of Thomas Jefferson.”24
As we can see from the words of Charles Hart, Jefferson did indeed suffer from the life mask process but did not experience a “near suffocation.”
Thomas Jefferson Portrait Comparisons
(1) Madame Tussauds’ wax Figure of Jefferson (2) Photoshop reconstruction of Jefferson’s life mask (3) Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800, (4) Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale
I studied a few of Jefferson’s paintings while attempting to place his eyebrows in my reconstruction. Some paintings show his eyebrows to be dark even into old age. I tried to shape his brows according to the contours of the life mask, taking into account that the plaster may have pressed his eyebrows a bit.
I settled on a light grey with some hints of green and blue for his eyes since we don’t know his actual eye color. Reading the historical accounts, we can conclude that his eyes were not brown, as some paintings depict.
More views of Thomas Jefferson's life mask
See a new profile view of Thomas Jefferson's 1825 reconstructed life mask.
Life Mask Video of Thomas Jefferson
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Sources & References:
1,2,3,4,5,6,7,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24 Charles Henry Hart. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans” Doubleday & McClure Co., 1899 https://www.gutenberg.org/files/51890/51890-h/51890-h.htm (Public Domain)
25 Thomas Jefferson Monticello. “Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia – Eye Color” https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/eye-color