Thomas Jefferson and the Academy

Fine Arts & Fine Wines

When Thomas Jefferson was President and the Revolutionary War was still part of a living memory, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) was founded by Charles Willson Peale in 1805 as America’s first art museum and school.  From early on, the Academy assumed the role of a national institution, and today it enjoys a more than 200-year history of training an impressive number of the nation’s leading artists including Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Cecilia Beaux, and Alexander Stirling Calder.

In the early years of this historic institution, Charles Willson Peale was in communication with his friend and colleague, Thomas Jefferson.  In an 1806 letter he mentions that he has just received “Casts of Statues, Busts from Paris which we sent for – so that a display of them will be made as soon as our building can be made sufficiently decent to put them up.”  He goes on to request a donation to the Academy, saying “I hope it will be a useful institution, for the improvements of our American Artists.”  Jefferson responds, “I shall cheerfully contribute my mite to your Academy of fine arts,” thus solidifying his early commitment to PAFA.

Thomas Jefferson’s love of fine wines is well known.  He called wine a “necessary of life,” but his wine interests went far beyond just drinking wine.  He was interested in its viticulture, making notes on German and Italian grape growing and examining “the details relative to the most celebrated wines of France.”  He planted vineyards at Monticello and experimented with grape growing in his Paris garden on the Champs-Elysees.  He encouraged Philip Mazzei, John Adlum and others in their vineyard efforts and accurately predicted that America would, some day, make wines as good as those of France.  He was a wine adviser to Presidents Washington, Madison, and Monroe.  

Throughout his life he was an advocate of the virtues of wine, arguing that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage.”  His wine advice to merchants and friends opened channels for the importation of wine into the United States from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.  To encourage the importation of wines he effectively lobbied for a reduction in U.S. taxes while serving as Secretary of State, as President, and later in retirement.

Jefferson was the most knowledgeable wine connoisseur of his age and his tastes in wine covered the world: France, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Hungary, Madeira, Portugal, Spain and, of course, America.