Jefferson, Bowdoin, and the Ancient World
Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and James Bowdoin III (1752–1811) figured among a small group of early Americans who recognized the value of art and antiquity for fostering of enlightened ideals and philosophical contemplation in a budding republic. Schooled as young men in ancient Greek and Latin literature, both Jefferson and Bowdoin travelled Europe, where each was exposed to ancient ruins, antiquarian culture, and art and architecture inspired by antiquity. During Jefferson’s travels in southern France in 1787, he recorded this moment: “I have been nourished with the remains of Roman grandeur.… I am immersed in antiquities from morning to night.” These formative experiences inspired both men, leading them to lifelong engagements with ancient culture expressed in the collections of books, prints, paintings, and sculptures they amassed.
At nearly seven thousand books, Jefferson’s personal library—purchased by Congress in 1815—was one of the largest libraries of the period. Notably, it contained many volumes of writings by ancient Greek and Roman authors, as well as scholarly studies of ancient art and architecture. James Bowdoin was similarly passionate about the ancient past, and, upon his death in 1811, he bequeathed Bowdoin College a collection of seventy paintings and 141 drawings, many of which were inspired by ancient myth and history. James Bowdoin’s collection of art was one of the largest in the nation, and his bequest to the College formed one of the country’s first public collections of art.
Who was Ariadne?
In ancient Greek myth, Ariadne was a princess from the island of Crete, a daughter of the King Minos. Tales about Ariadne feature in the writings of many ancient authors, including Homer. She is best known for helping the Athenian hero Theseus navigate the Minotaur’s labyrinth and kill the beast. After this event, according to most legends, she elopes with Theseus. Theseus abandons Ariadne while she sleeps on the island of Naxos in the Cylades, after which she is discovered by Dinoysus, god of wine, who marries the princess.
The dramatic abandonment of Ariadne at Naxos was depicted in ancient art, from Greek vases to marble sculpture. The sculpture of Ariadne that Bowdoin III gifted to Jefferson was copied from an ancient sculpture in the collection of the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican. The sculpture depicts Ariadne in the moment of her abandonment, asleep and alone in the rocky landscape of Naxos. Bowdoin’s letter to Jefferson is the only source for early details on the sculpture’s provenance. The copyist is unknown, and the sculpture came into the possession of a French official in Italy. An otherwise unidentified Mr. English obtained the sculpture and sold it to Bowdoin for $150 in 1802. By the time Bowdoin offered it to Jefferson, Ariadne was in Boston.
The Gift of Ariadne
Even though they never met in person, James Bowdoin III and Thomas Jefferson had been acquainted for decades, drawn together by political compatibility and shared passions for ancient history and art. In 1804, Jefferson appointed Bowdoin to be the United States’ minister to Spain, a tricky diplomatic posting in the political aftermath of the Louisiana purchase. In an 1805 letter, Bowdoin offered his services to the President in acquiring paintings and sculpture while abroad and offered him a marble sculpture of Ariadne as a token of his gratitude and in recognition of their shared appreciation for the ancient world:
Will you permit me to make a tender of my services in procuring for you any specimens of ye Arts, either in sculpture or painting; & although I am no adept, yet from having been in Italy & having viewed the works of ye best Masters, if you would entrust me with your Commissions, I would execute them in the best manner in my power. Accident having thrown in my way a handsome piece of Modern Sculpture, a Cleopatra copied & reduced from the ancient one now at Paris, which for many years lay at the Palace Belvidere at Rome: as I think it for the fineness of its Marble & the Neatness of its workmanship & finishing, among the best of ye Modern pieces of Sculpture, you will do me the favour to accept it & to place it in a Corner of your hall at Monticello: for which purpose I shall take the liberty of shipping it to you by ye first convenient opportunity […].
Ariadne at Monticello
Jefferson accepted Bowdoin’s gift, and, months later, the approximately six-hundred-pound sculpture traveled from Boston to Virginia. Jefferson installed Ariadne in the entrance hall of his Virginia plantation house, Monticello, where it remained until he died in 1826. In an annotated floorplan of the house, the sculpture appeared in a curious location in front of the fireplace (confirmed by a recollection of the sculpture being moved for a special event in 1824). Ariadne was singular in Thomas Jefferson’s extensive art collection, which included portraits, religious and classical paintings, prints, maps, and busts. Jefferson’s granddaughter called Ariadne “the only statue in his possession.” Around 1771, Jefferson made an ambitious wish list of nineteen works of art for a gallery at Monticello. Most of the works he wanted were sculptures, including casts of the Medici Venus, the Farnese Hercules, and other famous classical works. Jefferson never acquired any of the works from this list, and Ariadne became the realization of his early ambitions.
Thomas Jefferson died deeply in debt, and his descendants sold his land, enslaved people, furnishings, works of art, and eventually his house to repay creditors. Ariadne returned to Boston for exhibition and sale, but Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge “kept back the Ariadne […] because I thought it a pity to sacrifice them.” The sculpture remained in her family for 160 years, generously loaned to Monticello since the 1920s, and given to the estate in 1993.
Digital model of Ariadne created through the partnership of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Based on the original sculpture Ariadne, at Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello (1928-4). Modelling by David Israel, text by Emilie Johnson and Sean P. Burrus, interactive design by CHIPS.