Philip Hone (gift from the artist), circa 1825-52 (sold: New York, April 28, 1852, Inventory of Paintings, Statuary, Medals, etc, the Property of the Late Philip Hone, to be sold at public auction...)
William H. Osborn, 1852-1876 (acquired at the above sale)
Gift to the present owner from the above, 1876
A French nobleman by birth, Lafayette inherited his title from an estate in Aix that belonged to the Motier family in the thirteenth century. His father was killed at the Battle of Minden (1759) when he was only two years old, and eleven years later he lost both his mother and grandfather, leaving him an orphan with a tremendous fortune. Following in the footsteps of his late father, he entered the French army at age fourteen. Two years later, he married Marie-Adrienne-Françoise de Noailles, aligning himself with one of the most influential aristocratic families in France. Upon learning of the fight for American independence, Lafayette later wrote “my heart was enrolled in it.” Along with the German-born French supporter Johann de Kalb, Lafayette chartered a ship and enlisted eleven men to join him in his voyage across the Atlantic to aid the colonists. He arrived in South Carolina on June 13, 1777.
Lafayette immediately traveled to Philadelphia and presented himself to Congress. He requested admission into the American army on two conditions. First, that he receive no pay and second, that he serve as a volunteer, assuming complete responsibility for his actions and his fate. Because of this lack of self-interest and his abandonment of wealth and title to willingly serve a foreign country, Congress awarded him the title of Major General and he joined General George Washington’s staff. His bravery in the Battle of Brandywine, where he sustained a leg injury that left him incapacitated for two months, further endeared him to Washington, who in turn gave him command of a division. Though the division was small, Lafayette was commended for a number of his subsequent military actions, notably his retreat from Barren Hill (May 28, 1778) and his participation in the Rhode Island expedition (August 1778). When Great Britain declared war against the French in 1778, Lafayette returned to France and persuaded the government under Louis XVI to send 6,000 French soldiers to America to assist the colonists. A crucial figure in securing French participation in the Revolutionary War, historian Joseph J. Ellis declared him “The chief symbol of the gloriously effective Franco-American alliance” (His Excellency, New York, 2005, p. 116).
When he returned to America in 1780, Lafayette was promoted and given command of an army in Virginia, where he emerged as a key strategist in the Battle of Yorktown. In 1781, General Washington and his French counterpart, General Rochambeau, made plans to move on New York City, where 10,000 British troops were stationed under General Sir Henry Clinton. Lafayette notified the generals that Cornwallis had taken up a defensive position at Yorktown, Virginia, where he intended to replenish supplies and connect with the British Royal Navy. Meanwhile, Admiral De Grasse’s French fleet was moving into Chesapeake Bay from the West Indies. Washington recognized the opportunity to trap Cornwallis and made the decision to immediately turn south. On September 28, 1781, approximately 17,000 French and American troops descended on Britain’s less than 7,000 soldiers and served a devastating blow to the enemy army. Victory was secured in less than month, signaling the end of the Revolutionary War.
Throughout his service in the American army and long after, Lafayette shared a deep and abiding friendship with Washington. Ellis notes, “More than his military contribution, which proved crucial in the early stages of the Yorktown campaign, Lafayette’s importance to Washington was deeply personal. The bond of cordial affection established at Valley Forge grew into a mutual affinity and emotional attachment that made Lafayette, even more than aides like Hamilton and Laurens, Washington’s surrogate son” (His Excellency, p. 116). Lafayette was invited on numerous occasions to visit Washington and his family at Mount Vernon (figure 1) and he even named his first son George Washington. Undoubtedly, this endorsement by the beloved military hero and First President of the United States ingratiated Lafayette in the hearts of all Americans. Lafayette’s final arrival on American soil in 1824, forty-one years after the victorious defeat of the British, and twenty-five years after Washington’s death, provided a unique opportunity for Americans to reflect on their recent past and retrace their country’s march toward independence.
Hailed as the “Triumphal Tour,” Lafayette’s itinerary originally included visits to only the original thirteen states, though by the time of his departure he had set foot in each of the twenty-four in the union. The festivities that greeted the General in each city were the greatest display of public affection for a European visitor the citizens of the newly formed country had ever seen. Scholar Carleton Mabee wrote of his arrival: “Eight steamboats, flecked with banners, escorted his ship as it arrived in New York Bay. Throngs on the Battery cheered, bells clanged, canons roared. The General disembarked at Castle Garden on a specially constructed stair, decorated with flags and laurels. At the City Hall, Mayor Paulding welcomed him as one of America’s honored parents” (Samuel F. B. Morse: The American Leonardo, New York, 1943, p. 96).
Three days following his initial arrival in the United States, the Common Council of New York voted in unanimous favor of a proposal calling for a full-length portrait of Lafayette to hang alongside those of George Washington, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in City Hall. The first foreign dignitary to address Congress, Lafayette would join the young country’s political luminaries in City Hall’s pantheon of liberty and democracy.
The competition that ensued for the commission to paint Lafayettte’s portrait was a heated one, due in large part to the widespread and sustained publicity surrounding the General’s arrival, as well as the ambitious itinerary for what ended up being a yearlong tour. From New York, Lafayette traveled through New England and by October he was in Virginia, where he participated in the anniversary celebration of the Battle of Yorktown. During December of 1824 he visited the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, D.C. After traveling south to Louisiana and back up to Cincinnati, he returned to New York in July 1825. His travels were enthusiastically reported in newspapers throughout the country and entire cities were transformed into living homages to his greatness.
The leading portraitists of the day implicitly understood the impact the commission would have on their careers. John Vanderlyn, John Wesley Jarvis, and James Herring, in particular, made formal requests to City Hall to paint the General’s portrait. Rembrandt Peale brought his famous life portrait of Washington to New York to both showcase his accomplishment and imply his seniority. Despite these efforts and others, the commission was eventually awarded to thirty-five year old Samuel F.B. Morse. Paul J. Staiti writes: “The recent pictures of Vanderlyn and Peale were clearly inferior to their own work of two decades earlier, and Jarvis had done his best work soon after the War of 1812; Sully was strongly associated with Philadelphia; Ingham was a recent immigrant; Inman was unproven; and Waldo and Herring were technically inferior artists” (Samuel F.B. Morse, Cambridge, England, 1989, p. 117).
Morse had enjoyed considerable, albeit inconsistent, success as a portraitist prior to the competition. Like most of his contemporaries, the majority of his financial stability was dependent on portrait commissions, and he had spent years honing and promoting his skill by working for wealthy families in historically arts-supportive cities, such as Boston and Charleston. Despite the obvious advantages of such commissions, Morse was ideologically driven and determined to prove that art was a viable vehicle for elevating American political consciousness. He had tried in 1823 to engage the public by touring an ambitious painting of the recently rebuilt House of Representatives, only to be met with little to no interest. For Morse, the Lafayette commission would allow him, perhaps in a less literal way, to appeal to America's sense of nationalism and reawaken “the mythic passions that had brought the nation into being” (Samuel F.B. Morse, p. 125).
Arriving in New York in November of 1824, Morse was determined to create a network of support within the circles that would influence the commission. Artistic connections gained him membership into the Bread and Cheese Club, an exclusive gathering of artists, writers, and New York professionals founded by novelist James Fennimore Cooper in 1820. His patrician, Federalist upbringing afforded him introductions to New York’s political elite. In 1823, he had painted the portrait of James Kent, the ultra-conservative Chancellor of New York, who undoubtedly shared the same politics as he, and by the time of the commission, Morse had not only sold paintings to Philip Hone, the mayor of New York and thus Lafeyette’s first host, but was working on a portrait of the mayor’s young niece. Staiti writes “With his grace, intellect, and urbanity Morse was the model of the new literate American artist who was in no way the inferior of the men on the Arrangements Committee” (Samuel F.B. Morse, p. 117).
By the time Morse signed the contract to paint the portrait, Lafayette was in Washington, D.C. Morse traveled there early in 1825 and scheduled his first sitting with the General on February 7th. Upon their meeting, Morse wrote to his wife, “…if there is any truth in expression or character, there never was a more perfect example of accordance between the face and the character. He has all that noble firmness and consistency, for which he has been so distinguished strongly indicated in his whole face” (Samuel I. Prime, Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, New York, 1875, p. 140). Morse completed only two sittings before he was called home to New Haven by the devastating news that his young wife had died suddenly, three days after the birth of their third child. Morse finished the present oil study from life in July 1825 when Lafayette returned to New York and completed the final portrait in the spring of 1826 (figure 2).
In one of Morse’s many letters to his wife before her death, he wrote that the General introduced him to his son by saying, “This is Mr. Morse, the painter; the son of the geographer; he has come to take the topography of my face” (Life of Samuel F.B. Morse, p. 142). It is precisely Morse’s compassionate portrayal of the General’s face that distinguishes the present portrait from the numerous likenesses of Lafayette produced between 1824 and 1826. Depicted as alert, dignified, and highly individualistic, Morse’s portrayal exalts the aging hero while revealing his humanity. The upturned chin and raised eyebrows are visual remnants of Lafayette in his youth – fully subscribed to the romantic ideals of liberty and democracy. His gently sloping eyes and softened face, however, are tribute to the wisdom and dignity achieved only by the passage of time. Pictured at age sixty-seven, his youthful exuberance tempered by the challenges of a rapidly changing world, Morse captures Lafayette’s hope for the endurance of liberty in future generations.
As Staiti notes, “Morse’s portrait of Lafayette, which more than any other glorified his living majesty, was a public portal through which a lost state of grace could be reclaimed. Morse’s Lafayette allowed a divided polity to reenter a virtuous past, to feel once again the republican passion that was fading from daily life, and to be reunited as a people in their shared national mythology” (Samuel F.B. Morse, p. 125-6).
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