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.