Request for Painting:
Why Was the Portrait Painted?

Antoine-Jean-Marie Thévenard (1733-1815)

Antoine-Jean-Marie Thévenard, 1733-1815. (Courtesy of Réunion des Musée Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.)

Barre Letter to TJ2 (28 May 1785)

Second page of letter from Jean-Baptiste-Henri Barré to Thomas Jefferson on behalf of Thévenard, 28 May 1785. (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

The research team is not certain why the 1785 Delapierre portrait was painted. But they have uncovered evidence indicating that it might have been commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to satisfy what he thought was a request from Antoine-Jean-Marie Thévenard—a French naval commander supportive of the United States, highly esteemed by Jefferson, and interested in the treaty negotiations with the Emperor of Morocco being spearheaded by Jefferson and John Adams in 1785.1

On 28 May 1785, Jean-Baptiste-Henri Barré wrote a somewhat ambiguous letter (in French)2 to Jefferson in Paris on behalf of his commander (Thévenard) requesting a portrait of George Washington and, by one interpretation, a portrait of Jefferson. Barré explained: "Comme il possede deja celui de Monsieur Franklin cela perpétuera la mémoire des Grands Hommes sortis de l'Amérique, en attendant que vous vouliés lui Donner le votre pour Couronner l'œuvre et finis la Collection." (English translation: Because he [Thévenard] already has that of Mr. Franklin, that [the Washington portrait] will perpetuate the memory of the great men who came from America, expecting that you would want to give him yours to crown the work [project] and finish the collection.)

In a postscript to the letter, Barré said that Thévenard desired a portrait "Deux pieds cinq Pouces et demi de hauteur, sur dix huit de Largeur" [two feet five inches and a half in height, by eight-tenths that (23.6 inches) in width].3 The specified height matches that of the Delapierre portrait exactly, and the specified width is a near match. (The Delapierre canvas is 24.5 inches wide.)

Thévenard explained in a letter to Jefferson dated 10 February 1786 that these dimensions were chosen to match the size of a portrait of Franklin that Thévenard already possessed.4 5

In that letter—and in subsequent letters to Jefferson from Thévenard dated 17 May 17866 and 6 October 17867—Thévenard focused only on getting a portrait of George Washington copied from one Jefferson owned. There was no further suggestion that Thévenard wanted a portrait of Jefferson.

Nonetheless, that ambiguity would not have been clear to Jefferson until 15 February 1786—the date that Jefferson received his first letter from Thévenard.8 By then, the 1785 Delapierre portrait would have been completed.

Jefferson left Paris for London on 6 March 1786 to visit John and Abigail Adams. Realizing by that time that Thévenard had not in fact requested a portrait of him, Jefferson might have taken the Delapierre portrait to London and given it to the Adamses. Indeed, Jefferson is known to have taken at least one large portrait related to the Thévenard commission with him on the London trip. It was a painting of George Washington by the artist Joseph Wright9—later copied for Thévenard to fulfill Thévenard's request described above.10

References and notes

[1] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 10, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1954, pp. 254-255, 304.

[2] Ibid., Volume 8, 1953, p. 168.

[3] Ibid., p. 168.

[4] Boyd, Volume 9, 1954, p. 276. In this letter to Jefferson, dated 10 February 1786, Thévenard clarified his earlier request to Jefferson—conveyed by Barré in a letter dated 28 May 1785: "J'ai l'honneur de vous rendre graces de la permission que vous me donnez de prendre une Copie d'un des portraits de M. Wasingthon que vous possedez. J'ai celui de M. franklin peint avec la plus grande verité, et je voudrais lui mettre en regard celui de Celebre Général dans la format ou grandeur: cest à dire de 27 pouces ½ de hauteur, sur 22 pouces de large, le tout mesure de Paris, pied de Roi. Telles sont les dimensions da la toile du portrait que j'ai de M. franklin dont la tête avec le haut du buste sont peints de grandeur naturelle." (English translation: "I have the honor to give thanks for the permission you are giving me to acquire a copy of one of the portraits of Mr. Wasingthon [Washington] that you have. I have that of Mr. Franklin painted with the greatest realism, and I would like to put it next to the one of the celebrated General in the same format or size: that is, 27½ inches high, by 22 inches wide, all 'Paris' measurements, [in] 'pied du Roi.' These are the dimensions of the canvas of the portrait that I have of Mr. Franklin, whose head with the upper chest are painted life size.") By specifying these dimensions in "pied du Roi"—literally, "foot of the King," units of length prevalent in France before the Revolution—Thévenard confirmed that the measurements given to Jefferson in the 28 May 1785 Barré letter were standard English units. In the 'pied du Roi' system, one inch equals about 1.066 English inches. (See the table below.)

    Standardized French "Canvas on Stretcher" Sizes in the 18th Centuryi

Numerical Designatorii
Height x Width
("Pouces," in units of "pied du Roi")iii
Height x Width (inches)iii
Height x Width (centimeters)iii
3 10 x 8 10.7 x 8.5 27.1 x 21.7
4 12 x 9 12.8 x 9.6 32.5 x 24.4
5 13 x 10 13.9 x 10.7 35.2 x 27.1
6 15 x 12 16.0 x 12.8 40.6 x 32.5
8 17 x 14 18.1 x 14.9 46.0 x 37.9
10 20.5 x 17 21.8 x 18.1 55.5 x 46.0
12 22.5 x 18.5 24.0 x 19.7 60.9 x 50.6
15 24 x 20 25.6 x 21.3 65.0 x 54.1
20 27 x 22 28.8 x 23.4 73.1 x 59.6
25 30 x 24 32.0 x 25.6 81.2 x 65.0
30 33.75iv x 27 36.0 x 28.8 91.4 x 73.1
40 37.5v x 30 40.0 x 32.0 101.5 x 81.2
50 43 x 33 45.8 x 35.2 116.4 x 89.3
60 48 x 36 51.2 x 38.4 129.9 x 97.5
80 54 x 42 57.6 x 44.8 146.2 x 113.7
100 60 x 48 63.9 x 51.2 162.4 x 129.9
120 72 x 48 76.7 x 51.2 194.9 x 129.9

i Sources for standardized sizes: Antoine-Joseph Pernety, Dictionnaire portatif de peinture, sculpture et gravure…, Chez Bauche, M. DCC. LVII. [1757], pp. 534-535; Jacques-Nicolas Paillot de Montabert, Traité complet de la peinture en neuf tomes et un volume de planches, Chez Bossange, Paris, 1829, Volume IX, pp. 146-147. The numbers cited in 1757 were virtually identical to those cited in 1829—the exception being that height for the "30" and "40" canvases was specified to slightly higher precision in the 1757 source. (The more precise numbers were used to construct the table above.) Paillot notes [in 1829] that these standard canvas sizes had been adopted by most Parisian merchants (p. 146).

ii According to Anthea Callen (The Art of Impressionism: Painting technique & the making of modernity, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 18): "The origin of the standardized canvas system in France…dates back to at least the late seventeenth century, and the reasons for its adoption were evidently commercial rather than aesthetic." Translating a statement in the 1829 Paillot book cited above, Callen says: "These sizes seem ancient in date, because when they say a twenty canvas (une toile de vingt), or ten, or five, that means a canvas costing twenty sous, or ten sous, or five sous; well, these prices are much higher now [in 1829]."

iii Pied du Roi [literally, "foot of the King"] was a length measurement introduced by Charlemagne in about 800 AD. In that system, 1 pied [foot] equals 12 pouces [inches]. In modern units, 1 pouce equals about 1.066 inches, or about 2.71 centimeters. (See Units of measurement in Paris before the French Revolution.)

iv This height ("33.75 pouces")—from the 1757 source cited in "note i" above—was given as "34 pouces" in the 1829 source cited in that note. The research team has not been able to determine whether this simply reflects rounding of the number, or rather indicates a slight change in height specification that occurred sometime between 1757 and 1829 for the "size 30" canvas.

v This height ("37.5 pouces")—from the 1757 source cited in "note i" above—was given as "37 pouces" in the 1829 source cited in that note. The research team has not been able to determine whether this simply reflects rounding of the number, or rather indicates a slight change in height specification that occurred sometime between 1757 and 1829 for the "size 40" canvas.

[5] The size of the canvas specified by Barré in his 28 May 1785 letter to Thomas Jefferson—especially the height (29.5 inches, equivalent to 75 centimeters)—was not standard in France in the late 18th century (see table in note above), but was very popular in England. This suggests that Thévenard's portrait of Franklin, which had those dimensions, either was painted in England or was painted elsewhere to English size standards. Moreover, if the 1785 Delapierre portrait was originally commissioned to fulfill Barré's 28 May 1785 request to Jefferson to match the size of the Franklin portrait, it would explain why a portrait apparently painted in France was of a size not common there. For examples of the prevalence of 18th-century portraits sized 29.5 inches [height] by 24.5 inches [width] in England, see, for example: Old Master Paintings and British Paintings: 1500-1850 (Sotheby's auction catalog), London, 31 October 1990, lots 251-309, pp. 127-161. Of the 66 British portraits described, seven were exactly 29.5 inches [H] by 24.5 inches [W]. And another eleven had both height and width within a half inch of those specifications. So, of the 66 British portraits offered, 18 (more than 27 percent) were close to the size of the 1785 Delapierre portrait—within a half inch in both height and width.

[6] Boyd, Volume 9, pp. 545-546.

[7] Boyd, Volume 10, 1954, pp. 435-436.

[8] Boyd, Volume 9, p. 276.

[9] Ibid., p. 456.

[10] Boyd, Volume 10, p. 304.