Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thomas Jefferson and Paint

As you can see, I am a great fan and student of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. So it was with great interest that I read the July/August edition of Elle Decor. It features the makeover of Jefferson's dining room, which has been bathed in a subdued Wedgewood blue for more than 70 years. New research indicates that around 1815 the dining room was painted, at great expense, a chrome yellow. The yellow that Jefferson used was 33 times the cost of white paint (Imagine what Jefferson would have done with a credit card!).

Jefferson and Monticello, the Biography of a Builder, by Jack McLaughlin, is a particularly interesting book. It talks in part about the problems of painting at Monticello. Of course Jefferson didn’t have the luxury of running to Lowe’s or Home Depot. Instead, he hired a master painter by the name of Richard Barry to come and paint for two full years. From Jefferson and Monticello comes this account:

“House painting during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries took much more skill than is required in our age of manufactured paints and high-speed application techniques. Paints and varnishes were mixed by hand, and colors were created by eye. The only method of application was by brush or spatula. Like most of the building trades, painting technology had changed little in hundreds of years. Paint was made possible by the properties of certain vegetable oils, particularly linseed oil, which is derived from pressed flax seed. When most other oils are spread thin and allowed to dry, they form a sticky, gummy residue, but linseed oil will spread into a hard, tough film. If resins are added, it becomes a varnish; the addition of white lead and pigment produces paint. Master painters such as Barry were expert at mixing linseed oil, white lead, color pigment, and turpentine into a high-quality paint. They were also skilled in applying paint, not only in single colors, but in an imitation of grained wood, marble or stone. Barry painted imitation wood grain and stone at Monticello, and quite possibly artificial marble for the fireplace fascias, which were later replaced by the real thing ...”

Mr. McLaughlin also mentions that Jefferson painted some of his floors, including the entrance hallway, a grass green. It was a stylish floor treatment at the time, and a great advocate was Gilbert Stuart. He supplied Jefferson with a hand-painted “chip,” which Jefferson passed on to the house painter.


  1. Very interesting! I always have a painting project going on in the interior of my house. As I look around my house with various blotches of "tester" paints, I think I must be a descendant of the late Jefferson!

  2. I just finished painting my woodwork and trim, as in Canada oil based paints cease to be produced as of this month. As with the use of linseed or lead in house paint, it is the end of a decorating more petroleum fumes.

    For the creatively inclined, paint and the colours they are available in, both for home and canvas, are interesting. Although faux finishes were overdone in the 80s, done in discreet moderation, they are both elegant and simple to achieve.

    Fascinating about the cost of these brilliant hues. Reminds me of the cost of colourful textiles in pre-19th century period before chemical/ aniline dyes were discovered.

  3. Square with Flair, as you mourn the end of Canadian oil-based paints, consider what Jefferson's painter, Barry, faced. Again, this is from Jack McLaughlin's excellent book, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder:

    "In painting the interior and exterior woodwork, Barry used four coats of paint, probably two prime coats and two finish coats. He gave an estimate before moving to Monticello of the amount of paint needed to cover the interior, exterior, and roof of the house: 424 pounds of white lead, 127 gallons of linseed oil, and 85 gallons of turpentine, at a cost of $240. This was exclusive of pigments, varnishes, and of course, his labor. These figures were grossly underestimated, however for the amount of white lead alone was triple Barry's estimate..."

  4. That is amazing. It is difficult to imagine that in the 18th century and before, brilliant colour in decor, art, textiles, and clothing, was for the rich and elite. The unwashed masses were drab in clothes of their natural colour.

    Today, so many people wear grey and black and drive silver cars, intentionally avoiding the bright hues that once were the hallmark of aristocracy and ruling classes (like you in the crimson chapeau and robe worn in the Renaissance portrait). How dazzingly impressive Jefferson's yellow room must have looked for the time.

    Sometimes I think with nostalgia of the 1970s when saturated colour was everywhere.

    Thanks for the interesting information about 18th century pigments.