Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Trumbull, 7 May 1788

From John Trumbull

London 7th. May 1788.

Dr. Sir

Give me leave to present to you Mr. Thos. Duché, Son of Mr. Duchof Phila. who is nigh you at Chaillot for his health:—you will find him a very amiable and well instructed young man:—He has ask’d my advice of the route he should take to return to England and I have recommended him to come by Strasbourg, Manheim, Dusseldorp, Flanders and Holland: as this tour will give him a Sight of a very fine part of France and Germany, and of many collections of Paintings (for he is a brother of the brush.):—As you have just made exactly this tour you are much better able to advise and inform in the article of expence and the manner of travelling than I am, and you will oblige me very much by giving him your opinion on this subject, as well as by any civilities you may shew him while He remains near you. I am Dear Sir, most gratefully, Your Friend & Servant,

Jno. Trumbull

RC (DLC); endorsed.

As a friend of Trumbull, student of Benjamin West, and nephew of Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Spence Duché must have been received by TJ with the cordiality that he extended to all young American travellers; but as the son of the Rev. Jacob Duché, who had regarded the Declaration of Independence as a mistake, who had appealed to Washington to cease hostilities against England, and who had lived for a decade in London as a Loyalist, he must have been received with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. Five years earlier young Duché’s father had written to Benjamin Franklin: “My Son, who is now in his 20th year is a Pupil of my good Friend West, and most enthusiastically devoted to the Art, in which he promises to make no inconsiderable Figure. As he is my only Son, and a good Scholar, I wished to have educated him for one of the learned Professions. But his Passion for Painting is irresistible. West feeds the Flame with the Fuel of Applause: and his great Example has excited in my Boy an Ambition to distinguish himself in his Native Country, as his Master has distinguished himself here. The late Revolution has opened a large Field for Design. His young mind already teems with the great Subjects of Councils, Senates, Heroes, Battles—And he is impatient to acquire the Magic Powers of the Pencil to call forth and compleat the Embryo Forms” (Duché to Franklin, 22 Apr. 1783, PPAP; quoted by Albert Frank Gegenheimer, “Artist in Exile: Thomas Spence Duché,” PMHB description begins The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography description ends , lxxix [1955], 3–26, at p. 9). Since this was an object that Trumbull himself had in contemplation, and one, too, that had great appeal for TJ, Trumbull’s introduction takes on added interest. TJ usually gave the utmost attentions and hospitality to ambitious young Americans, and continued to follow their pursuits with interest, as his letters to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., Thomas Lee Shippen, John Rutledge, Jr., John Banister, Jr., and others testify. But evidently his interest in young Duché, who was undeniably an able artist, terminated with his laconic response to Trumbull on 18 May 1788. One of TJ’s steadfast principles was that political differences should not be allowed to intrude upon social relationships, but, while it is difficult to believe that such differences could ever have caused him to be inhospitable, it is easy to believe that an American artist ambitious to portray the great scenes of the American revolution would evoke a more cordial enthusiasm in TJ if he bore the name Trumbull than if he bore the name Duché. This was neither to employ political principles in judging an artist’s work nor to condemn a son for an act of disloyalty on the part of the father: it was merely to exercise the right of choosing between the congenial and the less congenial. Yet TJ must have found young Duché attractive and intelligent, as all of Duché’s family and acquaintances evidently did, and, if political subjects seemed uninviting for discussion at the Hôtel de Langeac in May, 1788, TJ may have found his own deep interest in music and paleontology suggesting safe and congenial subjects with one who dabbled at composing, and who, at the age of sixteen, had been recorded in the minutes of the Library Company of Philadelphia as the donor of a “petrified Clam” (same, p. 25). Duché’s travels for his health proved unavailing; he died of tuberculosis on 31 Mch. 1790, leaving at an early age a few canvases that prove how talented he was (five of these are reproduced in connection with Gegenheimer’s essay, cited above).

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