Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

By Brownell, Charles | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Thomas Jefferson's Monticello


Brownell, Charles, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. By WILLIAM L. BEISWANGER, SUSAN R. STEIN, PETER J. HATCH, and LUCIA STANTON. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2002. xxii, 218 pp. $45.00.

SHAPED for almost sixty years by one of the most intricate minds in history, Monticello is extraordinarily difficult to grasp. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the new book from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, offers much help to lay readers. The book will also serve scholars because it chiefly consists of five chapters in which four eminent specialists, all on the Monticello staff, offer documented condensations of their conclusions.

The foreword by Daniel P. Jordan, President of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, opens by endorsing two themes from the preface by Wendell Garrett, the longtime popularizer of early American arts. These useful ideas are that "Thomas Jefferson is a figure marked by paradox" and that Jefferson's autobiographical house is likewise a study in contradictions. It is left to the reader to apply these thoughts to the body of the book (p. xiv).

In the first chapter, William L. Beiswanger, Robert H. Smith Director of Restoration, addresses "Thomas Jefferson's Essay in Architecture" with unparalleled authority. Beiswanger's discussion consists of introductory remarks, a synopsis of the creation of the house, and an analysis of Jefferson's final villa. The analysis, the largest section, concentrates on Jefferson's private suite and follows Jefferson's memorable use of space outdoors. According to a common misconception, Jefferson began designing under the influence of British Palladianism but, rejecting his early sources, reached an American style by joining the French avant-garde. By contrast, Beiswanger offers much to sort out the French and the British elements in Jefferson's mature architecture.

Next comes the first in a series of short commentaries on miscellaneous topics, mostly by unidentified hands. The reader is advised against paying attention to material that is not signed by someone with the authority to write it.

Susan R. Stein, Curator of Monticello, provides the second and third chapters of the book. These chapters are the layperson's readily digestible-often highly readable-sequels to Stein's 472-page catalog, The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (1993). Here, Stein first gives the reader "A Look Inside Monticello," illuminating Monticello's household life from written sources.

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