A Partial Sun: The Story Behind the Story
The story of how I came to write A Partial Sun goes all the way back to the fall of 2004 when I received in the mail a “Call for Artists,” from the Class of 1974 of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, soliciting proposals for an “original bronze of Thomas Jefferson.” It was a big-time opportunity. To win the commission would secure my reputation as a sculptor, lead to other important opportunities, and pay a handsome return. So after meeting with the facilitator of the competition and visiting the site where the winning sculpture would be placed--an area which purposely resembled the original campus of UVa, which had been designed by Jefferson—I drove home, checked out a stack of books from the Virginia Tech library, and settled down to study this Founding Father, patriarch of American democracy, exemplar of 18th century Enlightenment, paragon of the Age of Reason. Scholars spend their lives trying to do this; I had about two and a half months, because the deadline for submitting proposals was February 1st. Even so, I loved the time! In fact, the pressure of brevity served to deepen my absorption.
Especially revealing was Faun Brodie’s Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, published in 1974. And what rose up in me in the reading of that history was admiration to the point of awe. If ever there was an example of “the possible human,” Thomas Jefferson was it. Able to read and write in six languages, conversant in a broad spectrum of the natural sciences, a regular correspondent with many of the best minds of his age, a self-taught, world-class architect whose Monticello home, is designated a “world historic site,” he was a connoisseur of wines, a lover of books whose extensive library became the basis for the Library of Congress, a studious cultivator of useful plants, and a meticulous record-keeper. He was thoughtful, articulate, insatiably curious, a generous gift-giver to friends and family, an inventor, a collector, a connoisseur of all good things. These are attributes and accomplishments for a dozen men, and yet do not include his many achievements as Governor of Virginia, Ambassador to France, President of the United States, and of course, author of the Declaration of Independence, whose statement of individual rights has been called the nation’s “creed,” and is one of the seminal documents in all of human history. And, to my surprise, I learned he was also a man of deep feeling: When his young wife Martha died in her bed in 1782, surrounded by family members and his household “servants,” he was so overcome with grief that he fainted and had to be carried from the room.
But my admiration was troubled by Brodie’s examination, in considerable detail and with the benefit of newly applied techniques of DNA analysis, of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. At the time I was reading An Intimate Biography the paternity of her children was still a matter of debate, and the Jefferson family was stoutly resistant. I, too, felt myself caught up in the debate. My admiration, which had shaded into loyalty, began hardening into defensiveness: it was hard for me to accept that a man of such character and accomplishments and so revered by history, had kept a slave mistress, fathered children by her, and consistently lied about it for years. If this was all true, it made him on some level no different from any other slave master, and that was disappointing, even disturbing. Yet Brodie kept piling up evidence which was hard to deny. Even during Jefferson’s own lifetime, accusations had circulated of his “sordid” relationship with “sable Sal,” which had been aggressively publicized by an aggrieved former patron and journalist, John Thomson Callender. Later scholars, some of them funded by members of Jefferson’s descendants, had exhaustively studied the lives of various contemporaries hoping to prove a different father of Sally’s children, chief among the suspects being Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph. A stunning contrast to Thomas (think of President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy, with his “Billy’s beer,”), Randolph was only semi-literate and an indifferent farmer given to partying with “Negroes.”
However, by the time I had finished reading Brodie’s biography, I felt that I had no choice but to agree with his conclusion: though absolute certainty may never be possible, it was highly probable that Thomas Jefferson maintained a long-term relationship with Sally Hemings, who tended him in his private quarters, and bore him seven children. This sounds pretty passé, now—even tour guides at Monticello now speak of it as settled fact--but for me, in 2004, as I was in the midst of trying to develop a conception for an “original bronze of Thomas Jefferson,” in hopes of winning a major sculpture commission, the conclusion was a mind-bender. Mind-bendingly strange, too: Sally Hemings was his deceased wife Martha’s half-sister! “Peculiar institution,” indeed.
Beyond this, there was my growing awareness that slavery was woven into the very fabric of his life. Enslaved persons were present about him virtually every moment of his waking life: in his bedroom, in the kitchen, serving at table, tilling his gardens, laboring in the fields, working in the shops along Mulberry Row. His very first memory, so he said, was of being carried as an infant on a pillow by a black servant. He became a slave master at age thirteen, when his father died in a fall from his horse; he absorbed huge debts, 10,000 acres, and 130 more slaves when he married Martha, “the widow Skelton.” Slaves no doubt dug his grave and lowered down the coffin box. He could not have been the towering figure he was without slaves. They provided him the skills and labor to create the American temple of Monticello and afforded him the leisure to write, to study, to entertain distinguished guests at his justly famous dinners; in effect, their toils enabled him to create a culture of rational enlightenment in the wilderness of western Virginia which could equal that of the salons in Europe, and from his years of service as a politician and leader shape the character of a nation forevermore. Furthermore, he understood very clearly the corrosive effects of slavery and said so, with characteristic eloquence: “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” In sum, this dignified and remarkable man is positioned at the contradictory crux of our national life; he penned its promise and lived its original sin.
All of this finally solidified a conviction in me: my sculpture of Thomas Jefferson must somehow include slavery. But how? How make this visible in clay and then in bronze? I considered his migraine headaches, which he suffered from periodically, sometimes so severely that he would remain in a darkened room for days. Perhaps, I speculated, these debilitating headaches were brought on by episodes of acute awareness of own hypocrisy. I could at least suggest this tormented state of mind by distending the blood vessels in his temples.
Then I came on something of greater value while browsing Volume I of Henry Stephens Randall’s 1858 biography, Life of Thomas Jefferson: a recollection, from 1851, by Wormley Hughes, an old, manumitted, ex-slave of Jefferson. Growing animated about Jefferson’s many fine horses, their “points, height, color, pace, temper, etc., of every horse as far back as Arcturus,” Mr. Hughes described an incident in which a “fiery stranger horse” tried to butt Jefferson against an overhanging rock. Jefferson “tolerated this once or twice, but on its being repeated, punished the rearing and plunging animal with whip and spur until he was ‘glad to put his fore feet on the rock and stand still.’”
Here was a Jefferson I had never encountered before: a man capable of studied violence, who knew exactly how to wield both “whip and spur” and break the horse’s spirit. Here, indeed, delivered by his own hand, were despotism and submission. I supposed that he had broken the will and spirit of other horses in this way, too. He owned them, after all. They were his property, and no good to him unless obedient. His overseers, with at least his tacit permission, and sometimes with his explicit instructions, likewise applied their studied violence on his human property, to break their will and spirit and compel obedience. In Jefferson’s world, they and horses might seem almost interchangeable except for the number of legs: bred and fed and kept and trained and whipped into submission if necessary for one purpose only--to serve the master.
And in that moment of realization, I knew I had my conception of an “original bronze of Thomas Jefferson.” I would depict him on horseback. For he could be both cruel and indulgent with his horses. He was a fine horseman, loved horse racing as a youth, and kept a stable of handsome horses all his days. He was often in the saddle three and four hours a day, both to inspect his farms, and for its healthful effects; he called his horse “the most sanguine of doctors.” Yet, in the episode Wormley Hughes recounted he could be studiously cruel; perhaps, I thought, in that moment both horse and slave for Jefferson became one, and he vented his violence upon them both.
Depicting Jefferson on horseback was appropriate in another way, too. While his beloved University of Virginia was under construction, he rode down from Monticello to survey the progress nearly every day, and the Darden School site was nearly a replica. I would therefore present Jefferson on horseback with that in mind, as both giving instruction to the builders and pointing into the future. Nearby, I would inscribe Jefferson’s own, ringing words: All eyes are opened, or are opening, to the rights of Man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others.
So I sculpted out a detailed maquette, or small model, of my conception, in clay, sixteen inches high and painted to appear like bronze, and took pictures of this, to include in my submission package. But because Jefferson’s head in this maquette was so small—only about an inch high--and did not adequately demonstrate my skills in portraiture—I began work on an over-life size bust (twenty inches high) of Jefferson as I thought he would have looked at age seventy-two, in 1819, the year that the University of Virginia opened. For this purpose I had already accumulated as much relevant historical information as I could find, particularly contemporary painted portraits and sketches of him.
And it was at this juncture, dear and patient Reader, that I encountered Isaac Granger Jefferson, in a little book I purchased in the Monticello gift shop: Jefferson at Monticello: Recollections of a Monticello Slave and of a Monticello Overseer, edited by James A. Bear, Jr. On the cover of this book, in an oval frame, was the compelling picture of this “Monticello Slave”: a broad-shouldered, very dark Negro wearing a loose, open shirt and shop apron. Inside the book--besides an expanded view of this picture, a daguerreotype taken in the 1840’s, some twenty years after Jefferson’s death—were twenty-four pages of this enslaved man’s recollections, in his own voice, “dictated to Charles Campbell by Isaac.” I studied the daguerreotype minutely, and pored over those few pages, which were filled with illuminating details about life at Monticello and vibrant glimpses of Jefferson himself, as for example that he “. . . bowed to everybody he meet. Talk wid his arms folded.” Such glimpses were gold for Jefferson scholars, which was why Isaac’s recollections were so valued, but for me what really stood out was a little story from Isaac’s own life, a digression really, of his having accompanied Jefferson to Philadelphia, at about age fifteen, where he was “bound prentice to one Bringhouse, a tinner.”
As I meditated on Isaac, his image and his story, it came into my mind that I could sculpt his portrait bust, too, just as I was doing for Jefferson, and that by making them of equal size and height, and placing them side by side, I could elevate the status of enslaved persons in our collective history of Thomas Jefferson. Isaac could symbolically stand for those hundreds of persons who had made his privileged life and remarkable achievements possible. This was all quite outside the bounds of the submission package I was preparing for the Darden School of Business Class of 1976. But I felt bound to act, was committed, sculpturally, and so began the work on Isaac. The difficult part was containing him: his great chest and broad shoulders seem to grow; I had to keep adding clay and yet more clay. Was I required to bring his whole self into being? I had not room nor clay, nor time, for that! So at last I called a halt, but felt indeed the press of his life, of the lives of those hundreds of enslaved persons whose lives, like Isaac’s shoulders, had borne up Jefferson and carried him forward through the years.
At last, just before the end of January, 2005, I sent off by priority mail my submission packet, in two copies, each with its documents, printed pictures, and CDs of images. During the days and weeks which followed, I carried with me a certain satisfaction in simply having undertaken and completed such an extensive proposal, and was warmed by the thought that mine might be the one chosen. Then at last I received the hoped-for letter, dated July 7th, which unfortunately began: “thank you for your interest. . . .”
Eventually, I summoned the courage to drive up to the Darden School of Business and see what the winning proposal looked like. The sculpture of a young Thomas Jefferson—much younger than my depiction of him—held out at arm’s length what I took to be the Declaration of Independence and he stood before a fountain in the shape of a wide bowl, representing the circumference of the world, with a skim of water spilling over the edge all around. It was impressive, and made me realize that I had not really integrated a fountain into my concept, having become preoccupied with Jefferson and slavery. I had allowed this preoccupation to lead me not toward what the Class of 1974 was looking for, but toward what I felt I had to understand and what needed to be said. For a time I could console myself that my failure to win the commission actually demonstrated I was a “true” artist, willing to forego “earthly reward” in pursuit of a higher purpose.
But this only carried me so far and in time I was ready to close the book on the whole experience. Except that I had for my witness the two large portrait busts of Jefferson and Isaac, the maquette of Jefferson on horseback in minute detail, and above all, that kernel of story Isaac had left me with: “bound prentice to one Bringhouse, a tinner.” I wasn’t going to be able to close the book so easily. The Darden School might be done with me, but I was not done with Isaac, nor he with me . . . .