Thomas Jefferson at Monticello – To See and be Seen


While most owner builders might take just a few years to finish a personal home property project, the third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), spent over forty years completing his dream home Monticello nearby to Charlottesville in Virginia.

It is sited high on a hill with a splendid prospect out over the countryside, adhering to the ancient ideal that allowed its owner to see and be seen.

On the 20th September 1785 in a letter to a fellow politician James Madison, who would become America’s fourth President, the future 3rd President Thomas Jefferson wrote

‘You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile to them the respect to the world, and procure them its praise’.

Villa Capra, ‘La Rotunda’ by Venetian Architect Andrea Palladio in the Veneto, Italy

Monticello was inspired by a sixteenth century counterpart the ‘Villa Capra’ located in the Veneto at Italy.

La Rotunda, or Villa Capra was an agricultural villa whose architectural style was based on the ideas for such a building first laid down in ancient times.

A villa in sixteenth century Italy was required to be a polished stylish work of architecture as well as a sturdy, but sophisticated farmhouse.

It was entirely distinct from a farmhouse or castle, the word villa at the time referring to the entire estate. The main building was known as la casa padronale (the master’s house) or more simply as la casa di villa.

Monticello was a ‘villa’ in the truest sense of the word.

It was a self sufficient plantation where everything needed to keep body, mind and soul alive was catered for or produced.

It supported an upstairs and downstairs style of staff, although the difference was that the labour was supplied by slaves, some of which were free, while many were not.

At Monticello, according to preserved documentation, as many as 130 enslaved African Americans raised crops and tended livestock, made nails and barrels, cloth and carriages.

They helped build the house, make many of its furnishings, and cultivated its gardens.

While we know Jefferson took his responsibilities to all the people under his roof very seriously it is still puzzling to us, in many ways today, when we find out all this was taking place when he was the main author of perhaps the most amazing document about liberty and freedom in history, the American Declaration of Independence.

Throughout his life Thomas Jefferson was continually putting his house Monticello up or pushing it down as his knowledge and experience of life and architecture expanded.

When he first began drawing designs for it he turned to the acknowledged authorities of his age.

He had a copy, readily at hand, of the treatise of sixteenth century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1509-1590).

He was also acquainted with the Earl of Burlington’s Palladian style pleasure pavilion at Chiswick at London, whose design by architect William Kent was also inspired by Palladio’s Villa Capra (La Rotunda) in the Veneto.
Jefferson  had visited the villa when at London as had future American President John Adams and his friend, that man for all seasons, Benjamin Franklin with whom he shared a love of enlightenment and the arts.

At the time he was on his way to Paris where he lived from 1784 to September 1789, five of the most memorable years of his life.

Fluent in five languages Jefferson was also able to read two others and, over the course of his life wrote some sixteen thousand letters, which are preserved at Monticello. They enable us to have a rare insight into his life and times.

Detail of a Portrait of Thomas Jefferson painted in 1786 by Mather Brown

At London Thomas Jefferson would meet many English Georgian self styled arbiters and rulers of taste.

They could be as eccentric as they liked (and many were), so much so that the eighteenth century became the century of the uncommon man, as Jefferson clearly was.

This was the time when a man’s sense of style was honed by his often prolonged Grand Tour of Europe. This was a journey of self discovery one on which good taste became a social virtue. The promise of Georgian grace was easily discernible, and for 150 years visually educated patrons, whose wealth was coupled with an informed aesthetic taste allowed themselves entirely unfettered expression.

We would be mistaken if we thought Jefferson would seek to pursue his owns flights of creative fancy by endeavouring to design something entirely original.

François Jean de Chastellux, portrait by Charles Willson Peale

In his age originality was not necessarily a virtue, especially when it passed the narrow boundaries of the self governing Rule of Taste.

These had been laid down in antiquity and were meant to be obeyed, especially if you wished to achieve success. Correct taste and correct behaviour were concepts that went hand in glove

The first Monticello Jefferson built seemed to many of its visitors, and especially Europeans who were quite partial to the ideas and concerns of the American Revolution, to be the ‘perfect habitat for one of the chief actors in the theater of the new world’.

The fact that it was a continuing work in progress when so many of them visited, would seem symbolically appropriate.

Francois Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, a major general in the French expeditionary forces who served during the War of American Independance said of ‘the house of which Mr. Jefferson was the architect, and often one of the workmen, is rather elegant and in the Italian taste. He went onto further say that ‘Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the fine arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather’.

Governor Fauquier took a great interest because he was impressed by Jefferson as a role model for what a gentleman of education and taste should be.

It is also assumed he may have encouraged Jefferson’s interest in architecture in a more direct way.

At London prior to coming to the colonies, Fauquier had rented a house from none other than James Gibbs (1682-1754) one of England’s most influential architects.

Like Fauquier, Gibbs was a member of the Royal Society.

He moved in the close knit circles of the privileged classes at London and had trained at Rome.

Gibbs designed some of the most impressive buildings of his age including his classic masterpiece St. Martin in the Fields Church, which today remains one of London’s architectural landmarks.

It has monumental Corinthian columns supporting its portico and a very grand manner Baroque style steeple.

Inside it reveals some of Palladio’s landmark features, such as a three light Venetian window, which was recently installed with new glass following a £36m refurbishment which took two years to complete.

Gibb’s books Rules for Drawing and Several Parts of Architecture and his Book of Architecture were in Jefferson’s library.

They could have provided inspiration for detail on the porticoes at Monticello.

The stone columns on the East portico were moved during a later re ordering of the house.

Painted white in the late nineteenth century they have now been restored to the original untreated stone.

From his earliest decision to build a house, Jefferson decided to take on the responsibility for its design and supervise all of the construction himself.

An elevation study of 1771 reveals he detailed Roman Doric and Ionic orders of architecture for the two story portico, although he seemingly ignored Palladio’s rule to indicate the entrance by widening the space between the two central columns.

However his ability to visualize and solve problems of space relationships stood him in good stead.

There are numerous surveyed site plans for Monticello, which were all made at different periods and carried out under his direction.

The first thing Jefferson needed to do when he started building Monticello was to consult ‘the genius of the place’ so that it sat well in its natural environment.

It was sited on a hill where ‘from its lofty but gradual elevation, the morning would be beautiful; the sun beamed forth in all his majesty; the birds warbled sweetly around us, the air was pure balmy and elastic; and when within sight of the house, we paused to contemplate the divine scene thrust upon our view’.

South Pavilion and Terrace

The first building completed at Monticello would be the South Pavilion, which he later altered. It was built in 1770 as his bachelor quarters while work progressed on the central portion of the house.

It was here Thomas Jefferson brought his wife in the summer of 1771. Jefferson had fallen in love with Martha Skelton, a widow whom he had first known while a student at the William and Mary College.

Except for the clearing where the single two story brick pavilion clung to the side of the steep slope, above a newly planted orchard on the south side of Monticello, the newly married Jefferson’s were met by a bleak setting covered with three feet of snow when they arrived on the cold night of 26th day of January, 1772.

Wine Cellar, Monticello

The foundations and basement of the house were finished when Martha arrived.

The rooms directly beneath the house devoted to storage and cellars for wine, rum and beer, as well as an armory.

The wine cellar was planned to be directly below the dining room where dumbwaiters on both sides of the fireplace would lift bottles to the floor above.

Under the terraces there were kitchens, smoke room, offices, laundry, stables and servants rooms taking advantage of the drop of the hill on either side. The Kitchen was located beneath the right angle turn of the South Terrace, a good distance from the main house, as was the custom in case of fire.

The South Terrace served as a place for promenade in good weather. Jefferson originally planned to build decorative pavilions at the right angled turns of both terraces.

Floor Plan MonticelloOne of the problems with placing the kitchen and smoke room beneath the south Terrace was that of venting smoke up through the terrace, and Jefferson settled on a handsome chimney in the form of Palladio’s Doric pedestal.

Food cooked for the family meals were carried by servants through the passageway that was built to run beneath the house and link the service areas below the planned terrace walks on either side of the hill. Roman man of Letters Pliny the Younger, had called such an arrangement a ‘cryptoporticus’.

It was widely used in Roman villas and Jefferson would have more than likely, been familiar with the one surviving at Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli through engravings.

For Martha Jefferson and her growing family the unfinished state of the house must have created endless domestic inconveniences, littered with stacks of bricks that were being molded and fired on the site, along with lumber, building rubble and scaffolding left in place on unfinished walls from one season to the next.

Monticello, the Dining Alcove

Martha Jefferson by Thomas Sully

The life of a plantation mistress during Martha’s lifetime was a challenge for the hardiest of women. She was expected to assume the management of the domestic life, which took up much of her time and energy. This included preserving meat, manufacturing dairy products and securing fresh foods.

She was also required to oversee those knitting or sewing, refreshing and maintaining the bedding materials, linen and slave clothing.

She had to manufacture soap and candles and make dyes for working cloth during the Revolutionary war period. Then, she was usually the plantation physician as well. That meant tending to the illness of her own family and of the families of the household slaves.

As well as managing to feed and clothe the servants she was also a mediator for any of their disputes; She invariably studied dance with a dancing master and would have been encouraged to draw or paint, especially if she showed any natural talent.

By reading verse and novels and by the way she dressed herself was a reflection of her husband and his prosperity.

As he was influential her clothing was expected to be both suitably stylish and tasteful.

Then, as if she didn’t have enough to do with all of that childbearing was considered one of her primary functions.

She had to nurse, raise and educate her own children. She was often pregnant, at least every other year and she brought forth the usual family of six or more children.

As well she was required to play an important role in her husband’s business and political life, as hostess and social companion.

There was music to read, play and sing and her ability at the keyboard would set her apart as it was considered a valuable social skill.

Makes being a working woman and raising children today sound easy.

Bed Alcove JeffersonIn 1781 Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello to write, work on improved agriculture, and attend his wife. It was during this time he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, a work that he never completed. Martha Jefferson died in September of 1782.

This event threw Jefferson into a depression that, according to his eldest daughter he might never have recovered from if it were not that he was posted overseas.

We do not know much about Martha because Jefferson destroyed all written traces of her existence when she died, except for one impersonal letter. As a widow she would have brought to Monticello some experience in domestic affairs.

This is reflected in her account book which was regularly reviewed by her sharp eyed husband. She was not physically robust, quite small in stature and delicately featured. From family descriptions it seems she was frank, warm hearted with a reputation for being somewhat impulsive.

To Jefferson the endless pleasures of nature, of farming and of gardening with all their contrasting sensations of colour, softly perfumed air, the sweet sounds of song birds as well as a sensual sense of touch were heightened by contrasting temperatures.

Freedom of movement allowed him to celebrate all the mysteries of the past and perquisites of the present to their fullest extent.

He more than likely was dreaming of the gardens of Paradise while dealing with the practical resources required at Monticello such as water, which was needed in regular and continuous supply. Adequate water was always a problem at Monticello and the cistern was necessary to collect rainwater from the roof and terraces to supplement his other sources.

His affairs of the head were there too. He had enticing catalogues to browse through at length in his library and his scientific instruments to enjoy both the day and at night.

Then there were his collections of natural history scattered about around the front hall. Except for his wife, whose portrait was never painted, his most important friends and colleagues were ever present, looking down from the walls and pedestals in both painting and sculpture.

Outside the house the gardens and grounds formed another kind of library; one he constantly nurtured and drew upon. Here the plants, flowers and trees collected during his travels in Europe or sent to him from remote parts of the world were cultivated, studied and documented in his Garden book.

Monticello the West Front

From his favourite bench on the Terrace he could enjoy a vista of the gardens, which were his own design. A typical day started early, because, in his own words “Whether I retire to bed early or late, I rise with the sun.” and he told of a fifty-year period in which the sun had never caught him in bed.

The West portico has a distinctive parlour bay, which still survives from the original building.

This dwelling and the whole surrounding scene is eminently fitted to raise an interest beyond that which sub objects ordinarily excite in the mind,’ a visitor wrote. ‘Everything moral and physical, conspires to excite and sustain this sentiment.

After rising each day Jefferson measured and recorded the temperature. At around four o’clock in the afternoon Jefferson repeated this ritual so that he could confirm that “the hottest point of the 24 hours is about four o’clock and the dawn of the day the coldest.”

Recording the direction and speed of the wind he also made note of the other indexes of climate, such as the migration of birds and appearance of seasonal flowers.

In the hall when you entered through wide folding doors which were never closed and ‘whose ever open portals seemed indicative of the disposition of the master, was his seven day calendar clock that still hangs above the entrance. Then, as now it is operated by weights along the walls.

The economic basis for being able to manage Monticello was its established system of slavery. A roster of 1774 reveals that some 135 people were assigned to him from his father in law’s estate, together with substantial land holdings.

His political and humanistic ideals never doubted the system would be destroyed and in his youth he had worked toward the modification of its legal structure. However in his own lifetime it was seemingly a curse from which he was never to escape.

jefferson_books2Much of the ground at Monticello, was like a villa in Italy in ancient times, under cultivation.

The vegetable garden was laid out in 1774, then it was re-graded and leveled into four terraces in 1809. It stretched along the sunny south slope of the mountain for about 1,000 feet, below the section known as Mulberry Row where the plantations’ slaves lived and worked at their various industries. He admired its architecture, enjoyed listening to music based on its principles of harmony and, he just loved gardening because it was all about getting your hands into the earth.

All these interests played to Thomas Jefferson and his senses and perceptions as an essential aspect of his experience of the environment, one he created at Monticello, where he died as the nation celebrated fifteen years of freedom.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014


  • Sheena Burnell says:

    Carolyn a fabulous piece, I remember your lecture on jefferson and Monticello during your course as being especially fascinating, so it was wonderful to be able to take on’s time reading this! But poor Martha dying after only 11 years of marriage and not even getting her portrait done, not much reward for all that hard work…!

  • Have always thought I would enjoy to have Thomas Jefferson join my top ten people in history to dine with…glad you enjoyed revisiting Monticello

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