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Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette Portrait, oil on canvas
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]

Born into an ancient and noble French family, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, commenced his military career in the King's Regiment of Musketeers in 1771. With his marriage in 1774 to Adrienne de Noailles, the aristocratic young officer entered one of the most powerful and influential families in France, increasing both his social standing and his wealth. Stirred by the reports of the rebellious Americans fighting for liberty, he seized the opportunity to fulfill his dream of military glory, bought a ship and sailed for America. After his arrival in 1777, his pleasing manner and willingness to learn earned the twenty-year-old marquis an honorary commission as major general in the Continental Army. He was devoted to General Washington who became his mentor and father figure. Lafayette's courage and tenacity on the battlefield and his successful pleas for material aid for the Americans through correspondence and on furloughs to France established him as a hero. The fact that he left home and hearth to risk his life in a country not his own (and at his own expense) for the cause of liberty captured the imagination and admiration of Americans. Received as a hero in his homeland upon his return, and well-known for his liberal ideas throughout the western world, Lafayette played an important role in the political changes taking place in France. Appointed head of the Parisian Garde Nationale in 1789 after the storming of the Bastille, he ordered the prison leveled, and a few months later, sent the key to the Bastille to America as a tribute to Washington, his mentor and the man he considered the father of liberty.1

Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1790 to be included in his gallery of American heroes, this painting by the French artist Joseph Boze represents Lafayette at the pinnacle of his career, a hero in America and France. Lafayette wears the uniform of the Parisian Garde Nationale (said to be of his design), with three medals decorating his lapel: on the right, the eagle of the Order of the Society of the Cincinnati, honoring French and American officers of the American Revolution, on the left, the Cross of St. Louis, presented to him by Louis XVI for his part in the American conflict, and, in the middle, the Medal of the Vainqueurs de la Bastille.2 Though the red, white, and blue of Lafayette's uniform are also particularly appropriate for an American hero, the blue and red of Lafayette's jacket were the colors on the coat of arms of the City of Paris, and they became the symbol of the French Revolution.3

Joseph Boze, French portrait painter and miniaturist, counted Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and members of their court among his sitters, and he was appointed official painter of the war under Louis XVI.4 It has been suggested that the portrait of Lafayette does not appear to have been drawn from life. Jefferson's agent, William Short, remarked in a letter to Jefferson that Lafayette, though willing, never had a spare moment during this intensely active time of his life to sit for a portrait. Further, the French sculptor Houdon had recently completed a bust of Lafayette which Boze may have used as his model. The pose, turn of the head, wig and uniform are the same in both works.5

When President Jefferson died and his estate proved insolvent, his collection of paintings was exhibited in New York and at the Boston Athenaeum prior to a sale at Chester Harding's Boston gallery in 1835. This portrait was purchased at that sale and presented to the Historical Society the same year. Other paintings from Jefferson's collection which came to the Historical Society include a copy of a portrait of Christopher Columbus, and the portrait of George Washington by Joseph Wright and completed by John Trumbull.6

1. Olivier Bernier. Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds. New York, 1983, pp.23-41; Anne C. Loveland. Emblem of Liberty, The Image of Lafayette in the American Mind. Baton Rouge, 1971, pp. 8—10; Marc H. Miller. "The Farewell Tour and American Art." In Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds.. Exhibition catalogue, Queens Museum. Flushing, N.Y., 1989, pp.104-105.

2. Marc H. Miller. "The Farewell Tour and American Art." In Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds.. Exhibition catalogue, Queens Museum. Flushing, N.Y., 1989, p.105.

3. Olivier Bernier. Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds. New York, 1983, p.202n.

4. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. Allgemeines Lexikon der Bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. 37 vols. 1911-1950. 1948, 2:494-495.

5. Agnes Mongan. Harvard Honors Lafayette. Exhibition catalogue, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., 1975, pp.90-94.

6. Andrew Oliver, Ann Millspaugh Huff, and Edward W. Hanson. Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society. Boston, 1988, pp.26, 111.


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