Portraits of Paine by Moncure Conway

from an Appendix in Life of Thomas Paine by Conway

At the age of thirty Paine was somewhat stout, and very athletic; but after his arrival in America (1774) he was rather slender. His height was five feet, nine inches. He had a prominent nose, somewhat like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It may have impressed Bonaparte, who insisted, it is said, that a marshal must have a large nose. Paine’s mouth was delicate, his chin also; he wore no whiskers or beard until too feeble with age to shave. His forehead was lofty and unfurrowed; his head long, the occiput feeble. His complexion was ruddy, – thoroughly English. Charles Lee, during the American revolution, described him as “the man who has genius in his eyes;” Carlyle quotes from Foster an observation on the brilliancy of Paine’s eyes, as he sat in the French Convention. His figure, as given in an early French portrait, is shapely; its elegance was often remarked. A year or so after his return to America he is shown in a contemporary picture as somewhat stout again, if one may judge by the face. This was probably a result of insufficient exercise, on which he much depended. He was an expert horseman, and, in health, an unwearied walker. He loved music, and could join well in a chorus.

There are eleven original portraits of Thomas Paine, besides a death-mask, a bust, and the profile copied in this work from a seal used on the release at Lewes, elsewhere cited (Conway, “The Life of Thomas Paine,” i., p.33). That gives some idea of the head and face at the age of thirty-five. I have a picture said to be that of Paine in his youth, but the dress is an anachronism. The earliest portrait of Paine was painted by Charles Willson Peale, in Philadelphia, probably in some early year of the American Revolution, for Thomas Brand Hollis, of London, – the benefactor of Harvard University, one of whose halls bears his name. The same artist painted another portrait of Paine, now badly placed in Independence Hall. There must have been an early engraving from one of Peale’s pictures, for John Hall writes October 31, 1786: “A print of Common Sense, if any of my friends want one, may be had by sending to the printshops in London, but they have put a wrong name to it, his being Thomas.”1 The Hollis portrait was engraved in London, 1791, underlined “by Peel [sic] of Philadelphia,” and published, July 25th, by J. Ridgway, York Street, St. James’s Square. Paine holds an open book bearing the words, “Rights of Man,” where Peale probably had”Common Sense.” On a table with inkstand and pens rests Paine’s right elbow, the hand supporting his chin. The full face appears – young, handsome, gay; the wig is frizzed, a bit of the queue visible. In all of the original portraits of Paine his dress is neat and in accordance with fashion, but in this Hollis picture it is rather fine: the loose sleeves are ornamentally corded, and large wristbands of white lace fall on the cuffs.

While Paine and Jefferson were together in Paris (1787) Paine wrote him a note, August 18th, in which he says: “The second part of your letter, concerning taking my picture, I must feel as an honor done to me, not as a favor asked of me but in this, as in other matters, I am at the disposal of your friendship.” As Jefferson does not appear to have possessed such a portrait, the request was probably made through him. I incline to identify this portrait with an extremely interesting one, now in this country, by an unknown artist. It is one of twelve symmetrical portraits of revolutionary leaders, – the others being Marat, Robespierre, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Danton, Brissot, Petion, Camille Desmoulins, Billaud de Varennes, Gensonne, Clermont Tonnere. These pictures were reproduced in cheap woodcuts and distributed about France during the Revolution. The originals were secured by Col. Lowry, of South Carolina, and brought to Charleston during the Revolution. At the beginning of the civil war they were buried in leaden cases at Williamstown, South Carolina. At the end of the war they were conveyed to Charleston, where they remained, in the possession of a Mrs. Cole, until purchased by their present owner, Mr. Alfred Ames Howlett, of Syracuse, New York. As Mirabeau is included, the series must have been begun at an early phase of the revolutionary agitation. The face of Paine here strongly resembles that in Independence Hall. The picture is about two feet high; the whole figure is given, and is dressed in an elegant statesmanlike fashion, with fine cravat and silk stockings from the knee. The table and room indicate official position, but it is the same room as in nine of the other portraits. It is to be hoped that further light may be obtained concerning these portraits.

Well-dressed also, but notably unlike the preceding, is the “Bonneville Paine,” one of a celebrated series of two hundred engraved portraits, the publication of which in quarto volumes was begun in Paris in 1796. “F. Bonneville del. et sculpsit” is its whole history. Paine is described in it as “Ex Depute `a la Convention Nationale,” which would mean strictly some time between his expulsion from that assembly in December, 1793 and his recall to it a year later. It could not: however, have been then taken, on account of Paine’s imprisonment and illness. It was probably made by F. Bonneville when Paine had gone to reside with Nicolas Bonneville in the spring of 1797. It is an admirable picture in every way, but especially in bringing out the large and expressive eyes. The hair is here free and flowing; the dress identical with that of the portrait by Jarvis in this work.

The best-known picture of Paine is that painted by his friend George Romney, in 1792. I have inquired through London Notes and Queries after the original, which long ago disappeared, and a claimant turned up in Birmingham, England; but in this the hand holds a book, and Sharp’s engraving shows no hand. The face was probably copied from the Romney. The large engraving by W. Sharp was published April 20, 1793, and the smaller in 794. A reproduction by Illman were a fit frontispiece for Cheetham (what satirical things names are sometimes), but ought not to have got into Gilbert Vale’s popular biography of Paine. That and a reproduction by Wright in the Mendum edition of Paine’s works, have spread through this country something little better than a caricature; and one Sweden has subjected Truelove’s edition, in England, to a like misfortune. Paine’s friends, Rickman, Constable, and others, were satisfied by the Romney picture, and I have seen in G. J. Holyoake’s library a proof of the large engraving, with an inscription on the back by Paine, who presented it to Rickman. It is the English Paine, in all his vigor, and in the thick of his conflict with Burke, but, noble as it is, has not the gentler and more poetic expression which Bonneville found in the liberated prisoner surrounded by affectionate friends. Romney and Sharp were both well acquainted with Paine.

A picturesque Paine is one engraved for Baxter’s “History of England,” and published by Symonds, July 2, 1796. Dressed with great elegance, Paine stands pointing to a scroll in his left hand, inscribed “Rights of Man.” Above his head, on a frame design, a pen lies on a roll marked “Equality.” The face is handsome and the likeness good. A miniature by H. Richards is known to me only as engraved by K. Mackenzie, and published March 31, 1800, by G. Gawthorne, British Library, Strand, London. It is the only portrait that has beneath it “Tom Paine.” It represents Paine as rather stout, and the face broad. It is powerful, but the least pleasing of the portraits. The picture in Vale resembles this more than the Romney it professes to copy.

I have in my possession a wood engraving of Paine, which gives no trace of its source or period. It is a vigorous profile, which might have been made in London during the excitement over the “Rights of Man,” for popular distribution. It has no wig, and shows the head extraordinarily long, and without much occiput. It is pre-eminently the English radical leader.

Before speaking of Jarvis’ great portrait of Paine, I mention a later one by him which Mr. William Erving, of New York, has added to my collection. It would appear to have been circulated at the time of his death. The lettering beneath, following a facsimile autograph, is: “J. W. Jarvis, pinx. 1805. J. R. Ames, del. – L’HOMME DES DEUX MONDES. Born at Thetford, England, Jan. 29, (0.S.) 1737. Died at Greenwich, New York, June 8, 1809.” Above the cheap wood-cut is: “A Tribute to Paine.” On the right, at the top, is a globe, showing the outlines of the Americas, France, England, and Africa. It is supported by the wing of a dove with large olive-branch. On the left upper corner is an open book inscribed: “RIGHTS OF MAN, COMMON SENSE, CRISIS”: supported by a scroll with “DOING JUSTICE, LOVING MERCY. AGE OF REASON .” From this book rays break out and illumine the globe opposite. A lower corner shows the balances, and the liberty-cap on a pole, the left being occupied by the United States flag and that of France. Beneath are the broken chain, crown, sword, and other emblems of oppression. A frame rises showing a plumb line, at the top of which the key of the Bastille is crossed by a pen, on Paine’s breast. The portrait is surrounded by a “Freedom’s Wreath” in which are traceable the floral emblems of all nations. The wreath is bound with a fascia, on which appear, by twos, the following names: “Washington, Monroe; Jefferson, Franklin; J. Stewart, E. Palmer; Barlow, Rush; M. Wollstonecraft, M. B. Bonneville; Clio Rickman, J. Horne Tooke; Lafayette, Brissot.”

The portrait of Paine represents him with an unusually full face, as compared with earlier pictures, and a most noble and benevolent expression. The white cravat and dress are elegant. What has become of the original of this second picture by the elder Jarvis? It might easily have fallen to some person who might not recognize it as meant for Paine, though to one who has studied his countenance it conveys the impression of what he probably would have been at sixty-eight. About two years later a drawing was made of Paine by William Constable, which I saw at the house of his nephew, Dr. Clair J. Grece, Redhill, England. It reveals the ravages of age, but conveys a vivid impression of the man’s power.

After Paine’s death Jarvis took a cast of his face. Mr. Laurence Hutton has had for many years this death-mask which was formerly in the establishment of Fowler and Wells, the phrenologists, and probably used by George Combe in his lectures. This mask has not the large nose of the bust; but that is known to have been added afterwards. The bust is in the New York Historical Society’s rooms. In an article on Paine in the Atlantic Monthly (1856) it was stated that this bust had to be hidden by the Historical Society to prevent its injury by haters of Paine. This has been quoted by Mr. Robertson, of London, in his “Thomas Paine, an Investigation.” I am assured by Mr. Kelby, of that Society, that the statement is unfounded. The Society has not room to exhibit its entire collection, and the bust of Paine was for some time out of sight, but from no such reason as that stated, still less from any prejudice. The face is that of Paine in extreme dilapidation, and would be a dismal misrepresentation if shown in a public place.

Before me are examples of all the portraits I have mentioned (except that in Birmingham), and I have observed contemporary representations of Paine in caricatures or in apotheosis of fly-leaves. Comparative studies convince me that the truest portrait of Paine is that painted by John Wesley Jarvis in 1803, and now in possession of Mr. J. H. Johnston, of New York. The picture from which our frontispiece is taken appeared to be a replica, of somewhat later date, the colors being fresher, but an inscription on the back says “Charles W. Jarvis, pinxit, July, 1857.” From this perfect duplicate Clark Mills made his portrait-bust of Paine now in the National Museum at Washington, but it has not hitherto been engraved. Alas, that no art can send out to the world what colors only can convey, – the sensibility, the candor, the spirituality, transfusing the strong features of Thomas Paine. As I have sat at my long task, now drawn to a close, the face there on the wall has seemed to be alive, now flushed with hope, now shadowed with care, the eyes greeting me daily, the firm mouth assigning some password – Truth, Justice.


  1. This is puzzling. The only engraving I have found with "Tom" was
    published in London in 1800. Can there be a portrait lost under some other name?