The statue of Thomas Jefferson by Pierre-Jean David d’Angers located in the Capitol Rotunda was the first full-length portrait statue placed in the U.S Capitol Building. Its bronze medium was unusual in early 19th-century America, where sculpture was more commonly carved in marble. The statue was presented by Uriah Phillips Levy to the Congress in 1834 as a gift to the American people.
Thomas Jefferson is depicted in his best known role as author of the Declaration of Independence. He stands in a dynamic contrapposto pose with his right hand holding a quill pen. The pen’s tip points to Jefferson’s left hand, which holds the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s famous words, which are readable, were created by pressing type into the statue’s clay model. Two bound books—perhaps representing the collection that he donated to the Library of Congress—and a wreath, a symbol of victory, lie at his feet. The statue’s pedestal is composed of marble and granite, in contrasting colors. The front inscription reads “JEFFERSON.”
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 at his prosperous family’s home in Albemarle County, Virginia. He attended the College of William and Mary. After graduating in 1762, he studied the law, was admitted to the bar in 1767, and practiced for several years. In 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton; the couple would have six children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
Jefferson served in the Continental Congress and in 1776 was chosen to draft the Declaration of Independence. Later that year, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, where he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He served as Governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781.
Jefferson’s federal service included the positions of trade commissioner and minister to France (1784–1789), first Secretary of State (1790–1793), and Vice President of the United States (1797–1801). In 1801, he defeated John Adams to be elected President. During his first term the Louisiana Territory was purchased and the Lewis and Clark expedition was launched.
After serving a second term as President, Jefferson retired to Monticello. He remodeled and added to the home, which he had started building at age 26. He donated 6,487 books to the Library of Congress, the foundation for a national library. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, for which he designed the buildings, and served as its first rector. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.
The statue of Thomas Jefferson was privately commissioned by Uriah Phillips Levy as a gift to the American people. A lieutenant in the Navy, Levy admired Jefferson’s politics, social philosophies, and views on religious freedom; he held Jefferson in such esteem that in 1836 he purchased Monticello, which had been neglected, and restored it.
The statue was sculpted in France by Pierre-Jean David d’Angers and cast by Honoré Gonon and Sons using the lost-wax technique. On March 21, 1834, the statue was placed in the center of the Rotunda. Members of the House of Representatives expressed concern regarding the acceptance of the statue as a gift, its placement, and the use of bronze rather than the more traditional marble. Over the next decade the statue was variously displayed in the Capitol Rotunda and other areas of the building, while never being formally accepted by the Congress. Beginning in the mid to late 1840s, it was displayed on the grounds of the White House. Years later its neglected condition attracted attention and led to renewed interest in its history. In 1874, the Congress passed a resolution to accept the statue and appropriated funds for its repair. After restoration, the statue was placed in National Statuary Hall, and in 1900 it was moved back to the Rotunda, where it has remained.
Pierre-Jean David, usually called David d’Angers, was on born March 12, 1788, in Angers, France. As a young man, he worked in the Paris studio of sculptor Philippe-Laurent Roland. In 1811, he won the Prix de Rome, which funded study in Rome. While in Italy he studied the antiquities and met sculptor Andrea Canova. Both Canova and Roland worked in the neoclassical style, but David was innovative in his naturalism and romanticism. In 1826, David was appointed professor of the French art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. He was a prolific artist, creating numerous monuments, portrait busts, and profile medallions. His other works in the Capitol include busts of President George Washington and General Lafayette. David’s republican beliefs resulted in his exile after Napolean’s III’s coup d’état in 1851, but he returned to France in 1853 and died there in 1856.