Sins of the Father

Virginia's Chrysler Museum reevaluates the architectural legacy of Thomas Jefferson

Model of Thomas Jefferson’s design for the President’s House competition (scale 1:66) (Courtesy Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza)

Virginia‘s Chrysler Museum of Art is staging an exhibition that will look at the contradictions at the root of much of the early architecture of the United States. The show will focus on Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation’s “founding fathers,” who designed neoclassical buildings inspired by ideals of freedom and democracy that were constructed by slaves.

Jefferson’s life as both an idealistic revolutionary who fought for liberty and justice, and as an opponent of racial mixing who fathered several children with Sally Hemings, one of the people he enslaved, has become emblematic of the country’s philosophical inconsistencies, and the exhibition will explore the brutal realities of the young republic. The show will display models and drawings of Jefferson’s designs, including a proposal for the president’s house, pictured above, alongside photos and tools of people like Isaac Granger Jefferson, who was held as a working slave at Jefferson’s Monticello estate.

“Thomas Jefferson engaged with the most advanced ideas of architecture and city planning of his era. He was also a slave owner who failed to resolve his ideals about freedom and democracy with his reliance upon the institution of slavery. We will examine these facets of Jefferson’s architectural formation and practice to foster a new and fuller understanding of his accomplishments,” said Chrysler Museum director Erik H. Neil in a statement.

The show will also feature examples of the work of Andrea Palladio, whose work deeply influenced Jefferson. Palladio’s Pantheon was an inspiration for Jefferson’s work at the University of Virginia. The Palladio Museum in Vicenza, Italy, collaborated with the Chrysler Museum on the show and loaned several of the models that will be on view.

Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles and the Conflict of Ideals will be on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, from October 19 to January 19, 2020.

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