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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, 1799
Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822)

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Oil on canvas
27 1/4 x 24 inches
Status: Private Collection, Jacksonville, Florida

Revolutions in Politics and Art

When Charles Peale Polk visited Monticello in November 1799 and painted his portrait of Thomas Jefferson both men—artist and statesman—were poised to initiate revolutions in their respective spheres of action. Lisa Crocker Simmons perceived some elements of this double revolution when she stated in her book, Charles Peale Polk, 1776—1822: A Limner and His Likenesses, that Polk’s life portrait of Jefferson was “the ‘essential’ Republican portrait.”

            To discern the meaning of her statement about Polk’s “republican” portrait and the revolutionary character of that work requires some understanding of the origins of the painting and the events of 1800 and 1801 that Jefferson himself called the “Revolution of 1800.” Further, a brief examination of Charles Peale Polk’s career as a painter and second-tier Democratic-Republican party leader adds strength to the assertion that the 1799 portrait is a valuable likeness of the third president of the United States and a “republican” artifact of the Revolution of 1800.

            In the presidential election of 1796, John Adams succeeded the Founding Father George Washington not only as the president of the new nation but also as the leader of the Federalist political party. He shared that role with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Other prominent Federalists were Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and his brother Thomas Pinckney, John Jay, and John Marshall. Together, they represented the conservative values of the American Revolution, pro-business and industrial interests, support of a strong federal government, and pro-British foreign policies. By the 1790s another political party, the Republicans, or more commonly-called Democratic-Republicans, had formed in opposition to the Federalists. The Democratic-Republicans opposed a strong federal government in favor of state rights; believed that agriculture, small businesses, and individual rights were the foundation of the nation; and were generally pro-French in their diplomacy.  Thomas Jefferson was the leader of the Democratic-Republican Party and other party members were James Madison, Aaron Burr, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson.

In the presidential election of 1796, the Federalist Adams was elected president, and Democratic-Republican Jefferson became vice-president. The 1796 election was the only presidential election in American history, in which the winner of the most votes in the Electoral College won the presidency and the runner-up, regardless of party affiliation or political philosophy, became vice-president. President Adams and the Federalist majorities in Congress sidelined Jefferson; passed laws; and enforced policies aimed to destroy their political opponents. In this way they set the stage for Jefferson’s Revolution of 1800.

The election of 1800 was far different from 1796, not only because it acknowledged the existence of the two parties, but also because the outcome of the election was deadlocked in the Electoral College. The Democratic-Republicans Jefferson and Aaron Burr had received more votes that than the Federalist John Adams. That victory was the tangled political context of the Revolution of 1800. The Federalists were out of power and Democratic-Republicans held the presidency and control of Congress for the next twenty-five years.

However, the decision about which of the two—Jefferson or Burr—would become president had to be decided in the House of Representatives. After thirty-five ballots in the House, Jefferson was finally elected president in February 1801, when Federalist Alexander Hamilton ordered his party members to break the deadlock and support Jefferson rather than Burr. In effect, the Federalist Hamilton had decided the outcome of a Democratic-Republican victory. In his inaugural address Jefferson famously stated, “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists” but the reality was that modern party politics had been created and Jefferson’s small-government, personal liberty, and state-rights interpretation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights became the basis of American political history.

Charles Peale Polk’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson as a firm-principled statesman at home at Monticello surely depicted the man as above the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics. However, the origins of the painting were firmly grounded in allegiance to Democratic-Republican Party values that soon triumphed in the 1800 election. The staunch Democratic-Republican Isaac Hite Junior had commissioned Polk to paint the portrait because Hite wished to have a likeness of the party leader among his private family collection. In addition, he enlisted his brother-in-law James Madison (Jefferson’s successor as the fourth president) to introduce the painter to Jefferson.

Polk created copies of his portrait for other family members, thereby strengthening his connections to the Hites, Jefferson, Madison and the Democratic-Republican leadership. His paintings of the Hites had presented their boldly Democratic-Republican virtues by portraying images of the Philadelphia Aurora and Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791). Viewers of that time would understand these icons of radical republicanism. The editors of the Aurora had been prosecuted under the Federalist Sedition Act of 1798, and Paine’s Rights of Man was denounced as endorsing the destructive excesses of the French Revolution. There are no such overt Democratic-Republican images in the Jefferson portrait, but it is possible that Jefferson may have forbidden such obvious partisan elements. While he was a tough-minded party leader, the Sage of Monticello and most of his contemporaries sought to cultivate images of themselves as superior to the ethically dubious machinations of partisan politics. Polk went even farther in his allegiance to Democratic-Republican Party than his painting commissions. He became a Democratic-Republican Party official in Virginia and sought unsuccessfully to establish pro-Jefferson newspapers in the area. He also maintained political communications with the future presidents Jefferson and Madison, too, in succeeding years.

At various times during the early 1800s Polk’s portrait commissions dwindled. To support himself and his large family he solicited appointments to clerkships and other offices that were within the executive branch to bestow. By 1816, the last year of President Madison’s administration, Polk secured a clerkship in the Treasury Department. He held this post from that year until his death in 1822. The post stabilized Polk’s finances and sustained his portrait business for the rest of his life.  

Charles Peale Polk was not among the first tier of American portrait painters but his images have proven both workmanlike and fruitful of contextual analysis. The fact that he was obliged to supplement his painting career with work as a government functionary is evidence that art patronage was undergoing a shift in nineteenth-century America. This phenomenon might even be considered as an aesthetic aspect of the Jeffersonian political Revolution of 1800. Direct government commissions were forthcoming as the Capitol and other federal buildings needed decoration. Enlightened citizens created artistic and cultural institutions intended to elevate public taste and education. Politicians and statesmen recognized quickly that they needed to appeal to supporters not only in words but also in pictures. Americans decorated their homes with reproductions of the Founding Fathers and of their contemporary political heroes, whether they were Democratic-Republicans or Federalists, Whigs or Republicans. Polk’s 1799 portrait of Thomas Jefferson pointed the way toward these sorts of works and also pointed the way to fundamental changes in American art history. It is not a great leap of imagination to see in Polk’s career and his “republican” portrait of Thomas Jefferson the outlines of the career and life work of Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (1785-1838), the “court painter” of the Age of Andrew Jackson.

Alexander Moore

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