Possible Link to Artist:
Who Was Baron Grimm?

Baron Grimm, 1723-1807 (© The Trustees of the British Museum, London, UK).

Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm (26 September 1723 – 19 December 1807)1 was a German-born French author and diplomat who had close ties with Thomas Jefferson in Paris and with the empress Catherine II in Russia. If the 1785 Delapierre portrait depicts Jefferson, Baron Grimm might have been the link between the artist—who spent much of his painting career in Russia—and Jefferson.

Grimm's introduction to Catherine II took place in 1773. He became Minister of Saxe-Gotha at the court of France in 1776 and was her agent in Paris for the purchase of art, executing confidential commissions on her behalf.2

If Grimm did not personally know Delapierre—who was appointed official Russian court painter in 17703—then he almost certainly knew him by reputation.

Based on a brief note from Grimm to Jefferson dated 21 May 1785, Grimm—in his official capacity as "Ministre Plénipotentiaire de Saxe-Gotha"—probably met with Jefferson that day, possibly for the first time.4

Introduction note from Baron Grimm to Thomas Jefferson, Paris, 21 May 1785. (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Thirteen days later, on 3 June 1785,5 Jefferson received a letter dated 28 May 17856 that appears to request that Jefferson have his portrait painted for a French naval admiral.7 

If Grimm's meeting with Jefferson on 21 May 1785 included discussions of artists—highly likely in view of Jefferson's strong interest in collecting portraits in 17858 and Grimm's role as art advisor to Catherine II—Grimm may have mentioned the artist Delapierre.9 Jefferson's awareness of Delapierre through Grimm at this or subsequent meetings10 might have led Jefferson to choose Delapierre to execute the commission described in the 28 May 1785 letter.

References and notes

[1] Edmond Scherer, Melchior Grimm, L'homme de letters, le factotum—le diplomate, Calmann Lévy, Editeur, Paris, 1887, pp. 15, 368.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261, 270.

[3] In 1770, Delapierre achieved the title of "agréé" at the Imperial Academy of Arts for a 1768 portrait of Catherine II and a 1770 portrait of Count Nicholas Petrovich Sheremetev. He also was appointed official court painter that year, executing portraits of the principal members of the imperial family, including the young Grand Duke—son of Catherine II and later to become Tsar Paul I. (See The Artist: Who Was "B.N. de la Pierre"?)

[4] From The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

English translation: [Cover page] "[To be delivered] to Monsieur. Mr. Jefferson, Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America, in his hotel in Paris." [Text] "Baron Grimm, Minister Plenipotentiary of Saxe Gotha, came to have the honor of seeing Mr. Jefferson and to compliment him on his first audiences with the King, Queen and Royal Family in the capacity of Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States of America near His Most Christian Majesty. In Paris, 21 May 1785 [Saturday]."

Jefferson met with King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette—and officially became the new American Minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin—on Tuesday, 17 May 1785. Grimm's request to meet with Jefferson took place the following Saturday, four days later.

[5] See letter (in English) to [Jean-Baptiste Henri] Barré from Jefferson, which indicates that Jefferson received Barré's 28 May 1785 letter on 3 June 1785. (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 8, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953, pp. 176-177.)

[6] See letter (in French) from [Jean-Baptiste Henri] Barré to Jefferson (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 8, edited by Julian P. Boyd, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1953, p. 168.) See also Request for Painting: Why Was the Portrait Painted?

[7] The portrait size requested was almost identical to that of the 1785 Delapierre portrait. See also Request for Painting: Why Was the Portrait Painted?

[8] (a) Susan R. Stein, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1993, pp. 28-34. (b) Harold E. Dickson, Jefferson and the Arts: An Extended View—TH.J. Art Collector, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1976, pp. 110-114. (c) Howard C. Rice, Jr., Thomas Jefferson's Paris, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1976, pp. 39-41. (d) Jefferson's Memorandum Books—Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826, Volume I, edited by James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1997, pp. 565-566.

[9] The research team has not been able to determine exactly when Delapierre returned to France after his career in Russia; however, a change in the way he signed his paintings, the nationalities of some of his clients, and his frequent use of standard French canvas sizes beginning in 1782 indicate that he may have returned in that year. (See The Artist: Who Was "B.N. de la Pierre"?) If Delapierre was in France in 1785, it is highly likely that he attended the month-long "Salon de 1785" biennial art exposition in Paris that began on 25 August 1785. This event was sponsored by the Académie de Paris—where Delapierre studied before moving to Russia—and was enormously popular among artists and art clients from throughout Europe. (See William Howard Adams, Editor, The Eye of Thomas Jefferson, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri, 1976, pp. 152-154.) Likewise, Thomas Jefferson almost certainly attended all three of the biennial expositions that took place when he was in Paris—in 1785, 1787, and 1789. (See Adams, p. 152.) Therefore, although it is tempting to speculate that Baron Grimm may have introduced Jefferson to Delapierre, it is also possible that Jefferson met the artist on his own at the 1785 exposition.

[10] Based on Jefferson's correspondence many years later, he became close to Baron Grimm in Paris and respected Grimm's judgment in artists. Writing to John Adams from Monticello on 8 April 1816—responding to a question asked by Adams in an earlier letter—Jefferson replied: "Did I know Baron Grimm while at Paris? Yes, most intimately. He was the pleasantest, and most conversible member of the diplomatic corps while I was there: a man of good fancy, acuteness, irony, cunning, and egoism: no heart, not much of any science, yet enough of every one to speak its language. His fort was Belles-lettres, painting and sculpture. In these he was the oracle of the society, and as such was the empress Catharine's private correspondent and factor in all things not diplomatic."

This correspondence is revealing in another respect: Although Jefferson corresponded extensively with Adams after Jefferson first met Grimm in Paris, Jefferson did not mention his relationship with Grimm to Adams until early 1816—more than three decades later. This suggests that there were many things in Jefferson's personal and professional life that he did not routinely share unless asked—even with someone as close to him as Adams.