Joyeux Anniversaire Marquis de Lafayette!

Posted by Kathleen Shure on

We love exploring and sharing the history of the people depicted in the art in our collection, which helps to enrich your experience of the collection as a whole.

With that in mind, we thought you might be interested to learn that the Marquis de Lafayette was born 262 years ago today. Many visitors to our gallery remark on Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of the American Revolution hero, pictured below. The bust is so striking that it makes one want to learn about this immortalized man.

Photo of cast painting of Plaster Caproni cast of General Lafayette on a grey table with a red cloth and black background
Houdon’s work began with a life-mask of Lafayette when the soldier was 28 years old. He then created a bust based on it and made a few more versions. The original sculpture in the Virginia State Capitol has an added layer of drapery over Lafayette's uniform. Both versions include on Lafayette's proper left lapel the badge of the Society of Cincinnati and the cross of the Ordre de Saint Louis.

To acquaint you with him, here is a short biography: 

Lafayette was born into a noble family with a military background in Chavaniac, France, and by 1770 he had a large inheritance. As did other Frenchmen, Lafayette sympathized with the American colonists who were protesting British rule, which impassioned him to present himself to Congress in Philadelphia in 1777. His willingness to supply funds and serve without payment and his passion for the colonists’ cause led Congress to name him major-general in the Continental Army. His famous military career in America followed, with Lafayette serving in and leading battles, being stationed at Valley Forge during that historic winter of 1777 to 1778, and acquiring French aid. He played a major role in the decisive 1781 Battle of Yorktown, helping to corner British troops. Lafayette had a close relationship with George Washington and the latter eventually regarded him as a son. After the American Revolution, Lafayette returned to France and became major-general of the army. His interest in America and his relationship with Thomas Jefferson (the ambassador to France) continued as he worked on trade agreements.

If you want to focus solely on his face, you can also take a look at the mask, pictured below:

Photo of plaster Caproni cast of the mask of Lafayette on a grey background 
One facial feature that Houdon had to completely recreate, as it was not a part of the life-mask he took of Lafayette, was the details of the eyes. Luckily, the way he sculpted eyes was one of his renowned artistic devices. Lafayette’s bust is imbued with life and character because of this technique and the direction of his gaze.

After the victory at Yorktown, the Virginia General Assembly sought to honor the Marquis de Lafayette. Upon recommendations from Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Barclay, the Assembly commissioned sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The result is the beautiful bust you see above.

We hope you enjoyed this look into the history of the Marquis de Lafayette!

Kind regards,

Robert and Kathleen

For further reading check out the biographies of Lafayette on the Monticello website, the National Park Service Yorktown Battlefield webpage, the Biography website, and the Colonial Williamsburg website. You can also find more on the product pages.

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