July 11, 2015
The iconic image of Major General Lafayette at Yorktown, with James Armistead, who was born into slavery, but whose master allowed him to serve Lafayette during the American Revolution. Armistead performed as a spy for Lafayette during the siege of Yorktown.Photo Credit: Jean-Baptiste Le Paon (1736–1785) Lafayette at Yorktown, ca. 1783–1785 Oil on canvas, 36½ x 28¾ inches Lafayette College, Easton, PA. Gift of Helen Fahnstock Hubbard in memory of her husband, John Hubbard, Harvard class of 1892
The famous plaster bust of Lafayette by Jean-Antoine Houdon, from the collection of the Boston thenæum.Photo Credit: . Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) Marquis de Lafayette, before 1789 Plaster, 29 3/8 x 20 1/8 x 19¾ inches, Boston Athenæum, Purchase, 1828 (Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College)
Painted by the famed inventor Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the artist captures the spirit of Lafayette in 1825, at the end of the American 1824-1825- tour by “Hero of Two Worlds.” Photo Credit: Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872) Marquis de Lafayette, 1825 Oil on canvas, 29¾ x 24¾ inches Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR (Photograph by Dwight Primiano)
Editor’s Note: David Dearinger, PhD, the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture and Director of Exhibitions at the Boston Athenæum, organized the current exhibition entitled, “Lafayette: An American Icon,” which runs from June 17 to September 27, 2015. The Boston Athenæum is located at 10 ½ Beacon Street, near the Massachusetts Statehouse. This exhibition, which is inspired by the recent reconstruction of the Hermione, the ship that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780, celebrates Lafayette’s role in the founding of this country. It focuses on portraits of Lafayette and illustrations of the events that brought him closest to this country and its citizens.
The Hermione visited Boston July 11-12, 2015, so this interview with Mr. Dearinger is timely for all the supporters and followers of the Hermione 2015 Voyage Project.
Q: From what angle did you pursue in assembling your Lafayette exhibit?
A: Obviously, there are hundreds of angles from which one could approach the topic of the Marquis de Lafayette. As an art historian with a specialty in American art—and with only one year in which to create this exhibition—I decided to focus the exhibit on images of Lafayette—paintings, sculptures, and engravings—knowing that this would require borrowing objects from (many) other institutions.
Q: We know that Lafayette spent very little time in Boston, did this pose a challenge as you planned the exhibit?
A: The exhibition is not about Lafayette’s connection to Boston (or Bostonians’ opinions of him—like most Americans post-Revolution and certainly by 1824, they basically thought he was a god, second only to Washington) and does not contain items that are particularly relevant to that topic. Probably a quick look at the indexes of the major Lafayette biographies etc. would shed some light on that. It is just not a specific aspect of this huge topic that interested me or, I think that would make a compelling exhibition.
Q: How did the bust of Lafayette by Houdon come to the Boston Athenæum?
A: The bust of Lafayette by Houdon was brought to Boston, along with other objects from Monticello—including the Boze painting of Lafayette that is also in the exhibition, lent by the Massachusetts Historical Society—following Jefferson’s death in 1826. Like Washington, Jefferson left a mountain of debt and his family (on the Coolidge side) [Ed. Note: A grand-daughter of Thomas Jefferson, Ellen Wayles Randolph married Joseph Coolidge, a Boston merchant.] scrambled to sell as much as they could. After some carryings on, the Athenæum acquired the bust, along with others by Houdon (Franklin, Washington) and at least one painting (Mather Brown’s portrait of John Adams), from the Coolidge descendants and it has been in the Athenæum’s collection ever since, one of the greater masterpieces of art that we own.
Q: What are some of the other items of the “Lafayette: An American Icon” exhibit worth noting?
A: Among these are the American Revolutionary battles of Brandywine and Yorktown and the winter that the American forces spent at Valley Forge; Lafayette’s relationship with Washington and his family as exemplified by the Marquis’s visits to Mount Vernon; and Lafayette’s triumphal farewell tour of the United States made on the occasion of the nation’s 50th anniversary. As is the case with all heroes—and as will be seen in these galleries—Lafayette’s ideals and the events of his life provided artists on both sides of the Atlantic with the narrative and iconographic material that they needed to make great art. Thus, they could frame Lafayette’s ideals as worthy of emulation and his life as a reliable source of inspiration.
For information, please visit: bostonathenaeum.org/exhibitions/lafayette-american-icon