Browere’s Life Mask of Jefferson

Have you heard the story of how Thomas Jefferson was nearly killed by the artist John H. I. Browere? The elderly, retired statesman and ex-president was approached in 1825 by Browere, who asked to be allowed to take a life mask of Jefferson. Apparently, Browere was not very skillful; the plaster hardened too quickly, which impaired Jefferson’s breathing and ability to cry out for help. Luckily, Jefferson’s hand was resting on a nearby chair, and he was able to bang it on the floor to bring attention to his distress.

To make matters worse, Browere did not apply enough oil on Jefferson’s face, so the plaster stuck to the frail man’s face. Browere had to use a mallet and chisel to break the plaster off of Jefferson’s skin, and the ex-president reportedly groaned and even sobbed during the whole ordeal.1 When discussing the removal process, Jefferson wrote in a letter that “there became a real danger that [my] ears would separate from [my] head sooner than from the plaster.”2

Poor man. It’s no wonder that Jefferson wrote in the same letter, “I now bid adieu for ever to busts and even portraits.”3

The above photograph of this infamous life mask was taken in 1939 by LIFE photographer Bernard Hoffman. Jefferson’s expression doesn’t look to happy – and can you blame him? The man couldn’t breathe!

Understandably, Browere didn’t have the greatest reputation. He was called an “itinerant sculptor” by Dumas Malone and a “vile plaisterer” by Jefferson’s granddaughter.4 Artists in the American Academy (i.e. Trumbull) and National Academy were opposed to Bowere, too.5 It seems, though, that the ambitious writer Charles Henry Hart was able to overlook all of Bowere’s faults. In 1899 Hart published a thorough examination of Bowere’s life casts in a book, and he even went as far as to call Bowere an “ingenious” man.6 (No doubt such a statement reflected well on Hart, who credited himself with rediscovering the artist.) Hmph.

Granted, I do think it is really fun to see life casts of so many prominent members from American history. In that aspect, I’m appreciative of what Bowere did. (If you are interested, you should look at some of the life casts in Hart’s book, found online here). As an artist, though, Bowere definitely was lacking in skill. After all, he almost killed one of the Founding Fathers through his incompetence.

Let’s end this post with a more pleasant portrait of Jefferson, shall we? At least Jefferson appears to breathe freely in this bust:

Houdon, Thomas Jefferson, 1789 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

1 Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 626.

2 Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 18 October 1825, in Smith, Republic of Letters, 3:1942-43. See also Gordon-Reed, 627.

3 Ibid.

4 Gordon-Reed, 626.

5 Charles Henry Hart, “Life Masks – Those Browere Made of Great Americans. Charles Heny Hart’s Comments on Them.” New York Times, 8 April 1899. Copy of article can be accessed here.

6 Charles Henry Hart, Browere’s Life Masks of Great Americans (Doubleday & McClure Company, 1899), x. Citation can be accessed online here.

  • The Clever Pup says:

    Thanks for telling me this. What a brow the man had. Makes Ted Danson look less of a neanderthal

  • heidenkind says:

    I had never heard that story. Poor Thomas Jefferson! I wonder what Browere's reaction was afterward–was he like, "Ooops, sorry about that. Thanks for the cast, though!"

  • e says:

    I absolutely loved reading this post. I'm going to forward it to my brother who is a huge Founding Fathers buff. Speaking of which, have you ever considered writing a post on perhaps a DC monument/memorial in addition to the one you did on the Vietnam memorial? I'd love to see what you have to say about a DC-related sculpture or something. Of course, I know you are busy with school, your son, and life in general, so no worries if you can't or aren't interested.

    Also, on the bust of Jefferson done by Browere, did you notice the AWFUL hair on Jefferson's head? I have to doubt Browere's artistic abilities based off that horrid mop of hair he put on the former president's head alone (forgetting the fact that he almost asphyxiated the president!).

  • M says:

    You know what's funny, heidenkind? Browere had the gall to stay at Monticello for dinner that same night. Apparently Bowere was quite the chatterbox at the dinner table too, which (understandably) was taxing on Jefferson (who recovered enough to sit at the table too). Annette Gordon-Reed mentioned that during dinner Bowere was "so boorish and insensitive that he actually joked about having almost killed the former president of the United States."* What a loser.

    Gordon-Reed goes on to say that this ordeal with Jefferson became generally known, Browere began to worry that his reputation would be damaged. He ended up asking Jefferson to write a testimonial for him, and for some reason, Jefferson actually complied with the request! (Jefferson always strived to be likeable and accommodating, but it's surprising that he agreed to vouch for Browere.)

    *See Gordon-Reed (citation information included in this post), p. 627.

  • M says:

    e, I'd love to write another post on a DC memorial. I've thought about some of them as I've read your blog. If you have a request for a certain one, let me know. :)

    And speaking of Thomas Jefferson's hair, did you know that multiple samples were saved and sent to the Library of Congress? If you want, you can read more about the samples here. (There is a picture and paragraph about 2/3 down the page.)

  • Nicjor79 says:

    What an incredible story! And it's odd how little he looks like Gilbert Stuart's official portrait.

  • M says:

    You know what I just realized? If Jefferson actually had died during the casting process, then two American presidents would have died right after their portraits were taken. (I've blogged about FDR's death and unfinished portrait here.)

    Yikes. This is starting to make presidential portraiture appear life-threatening.

    (Nicjor79, I agree with you about the Stuart painting. It looks like Jefferson lost a lot of weight during the twenty years between the Stuart portrait and this cast.)

  • shelley says:

    What a crazy story! I bet that was terrifying for poor Jefferson.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.