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“Thomas Jefferson’s Architectural and Landscape Aesthetics: Sources and Meaning” – Final Part

By: Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor and Chair, Department of Architectural History

Some of Jefferson’s earliest schemes (c.1768-70) for Monticello’s landscape were classical and balanced, but early on he begins to recognize that the building and the landscape were two different entities. One reason lay with the practical, his scheme for flatting the hill top was impossible with the horse and man power at his disposal and consequently the site becomes irregular. The flower beds—at least shown in the drawings from c1772 remain very rectilinear but this will change with the years and especially after his European sojourn.  [i]

Jefferson certainly knew about the transformation that was taking place in the gardens of English country houses prior to his visit in1786. On his own and then with Adams he visited many of the leading English picturesque gardens and observed firsthand the revolution. On the tour he took Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) and saw the new composition that was in direct contrast to the highly organized, symmetrical gardens that dominated Versailles. [ii] Whately describes this new English picturesque garden as an “exertion of fancy; a subject for taste” and “released now from the restraints of regularity, an enlarged beyond the purposes of domestic convenience, the most beautiful, the most simple, the most noble scenes of nature are all within its province.” [iii]  Influenced greatly by landscape painting of supposedly natural scenery, the new English mode attempted to create gardens that disavowed the hand of man. Instead of straight lines the paths were curved and sometimes followed the natural contours.  Ornate flower gardens disappeared except very close to the house and the landscape would be planted with clumps of trees and bushes that appeared random and not organized and ponds and streams wandered through rather than encased in geometrical order. Of course, all of this “new style“or the “English/ Picturesque” garden was created by man but with the intention of imitating nature.

Jefferson describes in a letter of 1806 what he intends to accomplish at Monticello: “The grounds which I destine [sic] to improve in the style of the English gardens are in a form very difficult to be managed.” He then describes the problems of steep hillsides, a river, and preexisting vegetation. The problem though can be solved with “what may be seen in England. Thither without doubt we are to go for models in this art.” However England’s “sunless climate has permitted them to adopt what is certainly a beauty of the of the very first order in landscape.” But America is different: “under the beaming, constant and almost vertical sun of Virginia, shade is our Elysium.”  Jefferson proposes a different type of layout with many more trees and then cutting away the lower limbs and underbrush.  This will allow views, or a “prospect” of “Mountains distant & near, smooth and shaggy, single & in ridges, a little river hiding itself among the hills, . . . cultivated grounds under the eye and two small villages.” [iv]

This description of what Jefferson intended to accomplish at Monticello lies in direct contrast to the geometry and classical order of the house and indicates another source for his aesthetics.  Jefferson’s idea of composing the landscape comes from several sources which include his visits to various English gardens in 1786, books such as Whatley, a response to nature, and the writings of Lord Kames, Hogarth, and Burke.

In Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson commented on the aspects of the American landscape. This included a description of Niagara Falls which he had never visited, Natural Bridge in Virginia which he owned and walking and then crawling out on it, and then: “The passage of the Patowmac [sic] through the Blue ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature.”  He writes “You stand on a very high point of land. On your right come up the Shenandoah having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patowmac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder, . . . “The piles of rock on each hand, . . . the evident marks of their disrupture and avulsion from their beds by the most powerful agents of nature . . . [v]

Jefferson acquired some of his ideas from the writings of William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753), which he listed as a very important book regarding the fine arts in a letter of 1771. [vi]  William Hogarth (1697-1764) is perhaps best known as the painter of satirical English scenes such as “Rakes Progress” and his opposition to the classicism of the English Neo-Palladian’s such as Lord Burlington whose Chiswick he lambasted. In contrast he admired the more florid classicism of Sir Christopher Wren. Hogarth covered many elements in his book but its most lasting influence lay with the passage: “The eye has . . . enjoyment in winding walks, and serpentine rivers, and all sorts of objects, who forms, as we shall see hereafter, are composed principally of what I call the waving and serpentine lines.” Hogarth argued that “beauty and use go hand in hand;” and “the greater the variety movements have, the more beautiful are the parts that cause them” This “waving-lines” he named “the line of beauty.”[vii]  Hogarth can be interpreted in many different ways but what he gave Jefferson was a way to view nature and how to compose it very different from the rules of Palladio and others.

Also present in Jefferson’s different descriptions of nature as in the meeting of the Potomac and Shenandoah is the grand spectacle, or as he writes in another place: “The Natural bridge, the most sublime of Nature’s works.”[viii] Sublime took on several meanings in England during the 18th century which ranged from horrific and terror to the awe-inspiring and powerful. Jefferson used the later meaning as in a letter to Maria Cosway while in Paris he describes the view from Monticello: “how sublime to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet! And the glorious sun, when rising as if out of a distant water, just gilding the tops of mountains and giving life to all nature!” [ix]

The sublime became popularized with Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), which Jefferson included in his book list of 1771. Burke saw beauty as female and characterized it as small, smooth and delicacy, while sublime was more masculine and meant power and magnificence. Jefferson did not accept all of Burke’s characterizations but certainly for him sublime meant awe inspiring.

Jefferson’s library as noted was very large and he read and owned many books by authors such as John Locke, Thomas Reid, Laurence Sterne, and others from whom he gained his ideas of beauty and architecture. Lord Shaftesbury or Anthony Ashley Cooper, III, (1671-1713) wrote a popular book that Jefferson admired named Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711). There in Jefferson found: “What is beautiful is harmonious and proportionable; what is harmonious and proportionable is true, and what is at once both beautiful and true is of consequence agreeable and good.”[x]  In many ways Jefferson accepted this concept but Shaftesbury avoided the issue of nature and Jefferson found another source.

Very important was Lord Kames, or Henry Home’s (1696-1782) book,  Elements of Criticism  (1762) which Jefferson owned and has been noted by several scholars as fundamental to his concept of beauty since he had a chapter titled “Gardening and Architecture.” [xi] Kames wrote that “a taste in the fine arts goes hand in hand with the moral sense, to which indeed it is nearly allied.” [xii] Two types of beauty existed for Kames: intrinsic and relative.  Intrinsic beauty came from good proportions and also a winding river, such as Hogarth claimed.  There was a formality such as “uniformity amidst variety,” and order, and that “in buildings intended to please the eye, proportion is not less essential that regularity and uniformity.”  He claimed that the proportions found in classical columns was a natural element and did not come from custom, but was universal.  But he also admired the English picturesque school of landscape architecture and praised the work of William Kent and argued that a house should not be approached head-on but obliquely. Kames’ second type of beauty was relative and came from the relation of objects and could be a result of utility. It came from human reason or “an act of understanding and reflection such as “An old Gothic tower that has no beauty in itself appears beautiful considered as proper to defend again an enemy.”[xiii]  Kames advocated both the English picturesque garden and also classicism, and certainly had an impact upon Jefferson.

In his letter of 1814 Thomas Jefferson cites Kames and writes:  “we have indeed and innate sense of what we call beautiful, but that is exercised chiefly on subjects addressed to the fancy, whether through the eye in visible forms, as landscape, animal figure, dress, drapery, architecture, the composition of  colors, etc., or to the imagination directly, as imagery, style, or measure in prose or poetry, or whatever else constitutes the domain of criticism or taste, a faculty entirely distinct from the moral one.”[xiv] This separation of morality from taste is important and while he believed that a sense of beauty was within all, still it needed to be fostered and developed.  Consequently he frequently argued that architecture needed to be taught, such as in his Notes on the State of Virginia where he writes “Architecture being one of the fine arts, and as such within the department of a professor of the college. . . perhaps a spark may fall on some young subjects of natural taste, kindle up their genius, and produce a reformation in this elegant and useful art.”[xv]  “Utility then, is the standard and test of virtue,” Jefferson wrote in the letter of 1814 noted above and makes the point, there are different ways in which to measure the value of art and architecture, it is not just proportion and line, but also purpose. [xvi]

For Jefferson architecture and landscape design had a purpose that was to fulfill a need but also to inspire.  The reason for the differences on the pavilions on either side of the Lawn at the University of Virginia he explained several times as a teaching tool: “The introduction of chaste models of the orders of architecture taken from the finest remains of antiquity, and of specimens of the choicest samples of each order was considered as a necessary foundation of instruction for the students in this art . . . We  therefore determined that each of the pavilions erected . . . should present a distinct and different sample of the art . . .  the lecturer, in a circuit attended by his school, could explain to them successively these samples of the several orders, their varieties, peculiarities and accessory circumstances.[xvii]“  Students should learn from their surroundings and know the differences of the orders and where they came from, whether the Baths of Diocletian or the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome.

Jefferson’s choices whether architectural or landscape were not based upon political symbolism but on the question of beauty, utility and inspiration. He was willing to choose as models for President’s house in Washington, D. C, buildings erected under the monarchs of France.  The Pantheon in Rome he proposes for the United States Capitol and finally erects at the University of Virginia.  What he is choosing is the best of all time or as he writes:  “antiquity has left us the finest models for imitation; and he who studies and imitates them most nearly, will nearest approach the perfection of the art.”[xviii]


[i] Jefferson, Drawing N-57, c.1771. Jefferson collection, Mass Historical Society

[ii]  See: John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis eds. The Genius of the Place : the English Landscape Garden 1620-1820  (New York:Harper,1975).  Some French gardens were also being similarly transformed and Jefferson saw at least one, Desert de Retz, outside of Paris.   See, Dora Wiebenson. The Picturesque Garden in France (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1978)

[iii]  Thomas Whately, Observations on Modern Gardening (London: T. Payne, 1770), 1

[iv] TJ to William Hamilton, July 1806 [unclear if letter ever sent], Jefferson Papers, DLC

[v]  Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, ) 1955. 19

[vi]  TJ to Robert Skipwith August 3, 1771, in Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1950), I:76-81

[vii] William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (London: J. Reeves, 1753) 50, 102.

[viii] Jefferson, Notes 20.

[ix] TJ to Maria Cosway, October 12, 1786, in Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson (1954), 10: 443-453.

[x]  Earl of Shaftesbury  Anthony Ashley Cooper, III,  Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (London:  John Darby, 1711).

[xi] Kenneth Hafertepe, “An Inquiry into Thomas Jefferson’s Ideas of Beauty,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 59 (June 2000), 216-231; and William L. Beiswanger, “The Temple in the Garden: Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of the Monticello Landscape,” in Robert P. Maccubbin and Peter Martin, eds., British and American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1984), 178-79.

[xii] Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (London: A. Miller,  Edinburgh a A. Kincaid & J. Bell, , 1762) p.26

[xiii]  Ibid. 3:331, 328, 332; I: 245-46, 250-251

[xiv] TJ to Thomas Law,  June 13 1814,  Lispscombe and Bergh, Works 14: 138-139

[xv] Jefferson, Notes,153

[xvi] TJ to Law June 13 1814,  Lispscombe and Bergh, Writings 14: 138-139

[xvii]  TJ to T. J. Tazewell, 1825 Jefferson Papers, UVA

[xviii] TJ to  David Harding, April 20, 1824, Lispscombe and Berg  Writings 16, 30.

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