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Since it was the country's fortune to have been defined and shaped by an extraordinarily talented Virginian, it is natural that hundreds of thousands of Americans should make a pilgrimage to his estate each year to experience a brief historic whiff of Thomas Jefferson's remarkable personality. Few are disappointed, even though his illusive historical shadow sometimes makes the pursuit difficult and even frustrating in spite of the enormous preserved record. From the swell of the dome on Monticello's west front to the silver coffee urn in the tea room, the place actually embodies more than a whiff of Jefferson's potent intelligence. The houseits furnishings, its art works and library, the gardens, and even the "lofty prospects" from the mountain he selected for its sitepresents an unsurpassed autobiographical legacy.
No man ever lived in more civilized elegance than Jefferson. Taking his clues and inspirations wherever he could find them in history or in contemporary experience, he strove to build a house harmonious with human dignity, the same ideal he followed in formulating the philosophy of the government. The definition for the new nation that Jefferson spelled out in 1776 was rooted in his native region and tradition, from which he also drew his first architectural and building ideas. Yet the seeming gap between those political aspirations enunciated in Philadelphia and the rarefied environment of Monticello impresses the visitor with how little one really knows about the man and how little one understands of the complex social texture out of which Jefferson and the country grew.
My own pursuit of but one facet of Jefferson's historic personage,centering on his interest in the broad field of the arts and architecture, began in earnest during three years of work on "The Eye of Thomas Jefferson," the exhibition mounted at the National Gallery of Art in celebration of America's Bicentennial. It required a certain temerity to undertake a book-length study of Monticello, but such a book at least had the promise of bridging a gap in the growing library of Jeffersonian studies.