Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Sansom, 16 May 1803

From Joseph Sansom

Philada. 5th. Mo. 16th. 1803

With all the respect due to thy public character, I take the liberty to address thee on a subject familiar to a Man of taste and virtu:

When I was in Europe I caught the usual passion of Travellers to possess some of the interesting objects of art with which that part of the World abounds; and had formed the Plan of a Private Cabinet; but my views and avocations have changed since my return; and I have among other things a small Collection of Models of the principal Roman Antiquities in the South of France, which I could wish to dispose of to thee, in the hope of their being kept together as elegant companions of thy philosophic retirement, or suitable appendages to the public Museums or Drawing Rooms at Washington.

They consist of

The Amphitheatre of Nismes, on a scale that makes it no more than 19 inches long by 32½ high; yet the inimitable Artist has contrived to represent the most intricate cells, passages, and stairways, throughout the complicated interior, as well as the majestic simplicity of the front.

The Maison Quarrée, 18 inches long by 9 & ½ high.

The Pont du Gard 24 inches long by 4 & ½ high.

A circular tomb at Aix, three stories high, of singular beauty, 7 & ½ diameter by 23 high.

A tomb near Vienne on the Rhone 4 & ½ square by 17 high.

They are all represented with astonishing accuracy, in that state of ruin they are now in, which only tends to increase their picturesque effect, the Maison Quarrée excepted, the actual preservation of which renders it unnecessary to exhibit it otherwise than in its pristine perfection.

I forbear a more particular description as these celebrated Edifices are well known to thee, tho’ I must do the Models the justice to say that they are wrought with a degree of beauty and exactness that none but such as have seen the perfect specimens of art preserved in European Cabinets can form an idea of without seeing them.

I bought them of the Artist himself, Therondel, a Citizen of Nismes, who seems to have been born with a peculiar faculty to illustrate, as they deserve, the superb Monuments of Antiquity in his native place. He had so far injured his sight by years of labour upon the minuter parts of these objects that he considered it impossible ever to make a similar model of the Maison Quarrée, the foliated modillions on the cornish of which require a glass to be distinctly seen.

He happened to be exhibiting them in Paris at the time I was there, and the state of his Family requiring his return to Nismes, with pecuniary supplies, he sold them to me for a sum far below the value of so much ingenious labour.

I now the take the liberty to offer them to thee, at the cost, and subscribe myself,

with all due consideration, as well as personal esteem, Thy respectful Friend

Joseph Sansom

P.S. They would be shewn to any Person whose opinion [. . .] choose to have, or a more particular description would be given, if required. In case of purchase they could be sent to order, with perfect safety, as they are secured for transportation in separate boxes.

RC (DLC); torn; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire President of the United States Washington”; postmarked 20 May; endorsed by TJ as received 22 May and so recorded in SJL.

Pennsylvania Quaker Joseph Sansom (1767–1826) was the brother and business partner of prosperous Philadelphia merchant and East India trader William Sansom. Self-described as a merchant, Joseph Sansom used his resources to further interests in literature, travel, and the arts. As an amateur artist, he mastered the silhouette profile, producing his “physiognomical sketches” of “remarkable persons” from 1790 to 1792. He recorded portions of his three-year tour abroad in Letters from Europe during a Tour Through Switzerland and Italy, in the Years 1801 and 1802, published in Philadelphia in 1805. The following year, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and, in 1808, contributed to it his mineral collections and Roman relics (Elva Tooker, Nathan Trotter, Philadelphia Merchant, 1787–1853 [Cambridge, Mass., 1955], 39–42, 237; Charles Coleman Sellers, “Joseph Sansom, Philadelphia Silhouettist,” PMHB description begins Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1877- description ends , 88 [1964], 395–401; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Transactions, new ser., 42, pt. 1 [1952], 190).

therondel advanced the small-scale museum concept by creating exact cardboard replicas of monuments as they existed “in a state of ruination” such as the obelisk at Arles, the Pont du Gard, and the amphitheater at Nîmes. He exhibited them in Paris in 1801 at the Cabinet Thérondel, 904 rue de la Loi, near the Passage Duchesne (Jeremy D. Popkin and Richard H. Popkin, eds., The Abbé Grégoire and His World [Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2000], 154–5).

After his return from Europe, Sansom wrote a letter to “The President & Members of the American Philosophical Society” requesting the acceptance of a plaster of Paris bust of Benjamin Franklin made by the elder John Flaxman of London after the original by the French sculptor, Houdon. Sansom noted that, “The resemblance will speak for itself. It was taken from the Life, during his residence at the Court of France” (RC in PPAmP, endorsed as received on 21 Jan. 1803 and “Donation of Bust of Dr. Franklin”; Bulletin of the City Art Museum of St. Louis, 21 [1936], 52).

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