Art, Art & Archives, Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Prints and Drawings

The Drawing That Once Hung in Thomas Jefferson’s Parlor

An American has slipped his way into exclusive British company—the exhibition Luminous Paper: British Watercolors and Drawings, opening July 19.

Owned for years by Thomas Jefferson, admirer of all things classical, this pen-and-ink by Pennsylvania-born artist Benjamin West depicts a dramatic moment from the Iliad (are there any other kind?) in which warrior Hector bids farewell to his wife.

<em>The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache)</em>, Benjamin West, 1797. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GG.722

The Fright of Astyanax (Hector Bidding Farewell to Andromache), Benjamin West, pen and brown ink, brown wash, and blue and white bodycolor on brown prepared paper, 1797. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GG.722

West dedicated the drawing to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, hero of the American Revolution, and Kosciuszko passed the drawing to his friend Jefferson, who hung it in the parlor of Monticello, in the vicinity of a print of Kosciuszko, a bust of Napoleon…and watercolors of Virginia songbirds.

West was almost as exemplary an American as Jefferson, climbing from middle-class obscurity in Swarthmore to refined gentility in London thanks to his great talent for Neoclassical history painting; his charm and good looks didn’t hurt, either. Though he served George III as court painter (boo! hiss!), he redeemed himself by repeatedly appealing to the plunderer of seas and burner of towns to grant independence to the colonies.

And where the artist failed, soldiers like Kosciuszko and statesmen like Jefferson prevailed. Happy Fourth of July!

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