Thomas Jefferson Papers
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Caspar Wistar to Thomas Jefferson, 28 May 1816

From Caspar Wistar

Philada May 28 1816

Dr Sir

The Bearer Mr Otis is an Artist of rising Character who has been settled in Philada Several years & has distinguished himself by his ingenuity as well as his obliging disposition. He has Several inventions which will interest you & if you have any Specimens of Natural History to Copy he will I believe give you great Satisfaction by his execution—Expecting to write again in a few days I only Renew the declarations of Sincere Regard & attachment which are uniformly felt by

Your obliged friend

C Wistar

RC (NNPM); dateline adjacent to signature; at foot of text: “His Excellency Mr Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 3 June 1816 and so recorded in SJL, which adds that it was delivered “by mr Otis.”

Bass Otis (1784–1861), artist and lithographer, was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. He reputedly studied art with Gilbert Stuart in Boston before moving by 1808 to New York City. By 1812 Otis had settled in Philadelphia. That same year he was elected a member of the Society of Artists of the United States, and eight of his portraits were included in its annual exhibition. Otis received a patent on 14 Mar. 1815 for a “perspective protracter,” a device that helps a portraitist keep a sitter’s body parts in proportion. He is also credited with producing in 1818 the first lithograph made in the United States. Otis was engaged by the publisher Joseph Delaplaine in 1816 to create a series of paintings to be engraved for Delaplaine’s Repository description begins Joseph Delaplaine, Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans, Philadelphia, 1816–18, 2 vols.; Poor, Jefferson’s Library, 4 (no. 139) description ends . Although he completed a number of portraits, TJ’s likeness was the only one of his efforts ultimately used in this work. Otis later painted other portraits of TJ based on the original sitting, but it is this first version of June 1816 that is reproduced elsewhere in this volume. At a Philadelphia art show in 1818, he exhibited his Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, late President of the United States of America. Starting late in the 1830s, Otis painted portraits in cities across the northeastern United States, residing at times in Boston, New York City, and Wilmington, Delaware, before returning permanently to Philadelphia in 1858 (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Groce and Wallace, Dictionary of Artists description begins George C. Groce and David H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564–1860, 1957 description ends , 480; Gainor B. Davis and Wayne Craven, Bass Otis: Painter, Portraitist and Engraver [1976]; Thomas Knoles, “The Notebook of Bass Otis, Philadelphia Portrait Painter,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 103 [1993]: 179–253; Gordon Hendricks, “‘A Wish to Please, and a Willingness to be Pleased,’” American Art Journal 2 [1970]: 16–29; Second Annual Exhibition of the Society of Artists of the United States, and the Pennsylvania Academy. 1812 [Philadelphia, 1812], 15, 17–9, 21, 29; List of Patents description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1790, to December 31, 1836, 1872 description ends , 150; Joseph Jackson, “Bass Otis, America’s First Lithographer,” PMHB description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1877–  description ends 37 [1913]: 385–94; Delaplaine’s Repository description begins Joseph Delaplaine, Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans, Philadelphia, 1816–18, 2 vols.; Poor, Jefferson’s Library, 4 (no. 139) description ends , 1:124; Bush, Life Portraits description begins Alfred L. Bush, The Life Portraits of Thomas Jefferson, rev. ed., 1987 description ends , 64–7; Seventh Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts [Philadelphia, 1818], 10; Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Nov. 1861).

Index Entries

  • Jefferson, Thomas; Correspondence; letters of introduction to search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Portraits; B. Otis’s painting search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); Visitors to; Otis, Bass search
  • Otis, Bass; C. Wistar introduces to TJ search
  • Otis, Bass; identified search
  • Otis, Bass; portrait of TJ search
  • Otis, Bass; visits Monticello search
  • Wistar, Caspar; introduces B. Otis search
  • Wistar, Caspar; letters from search