Jordan Wouk is this week’s guest blogger. He’s one of our dedicated volunteers who has worked three years as a Museum docent here at N-YHS. While leading tours of exhibitions, Jordan developed a keen interested in the adoptive American, the Marquis de Lafayette. In his post, he explores Lafayette’s ties to both New York and N-YHS.
Now on view at the New-York Historical Society is Lafayette’s Return: The “Boy General,” the American Revolution, and the Hermione. The special installation was inspired by the two-decade-long project to build a replica of the ship. This summer a recreated Hermione traveled to many ports on the East Coast, including New York Harbor, where it docked over July 4 weekend.
The Marquis de Lafayette (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1757–1834), also referred to simply as “Lafayette,” participated in both the American and French Revolutions. Lafayette’s Return concentrates on his role in the American Revolution and his second voyage to America aboard the French ship the Hermione, which he helped finance and which also brought supplies, soldiers and, most importantly, the news that the French King Louis XVI was sending substantial army and naval forces to support our revolution. This support contributed to the ultimate defeat of the British in 1781. Because Lafayette was in the United States and served as a major general in the Continental Army, it is not surprising that many prominent New Yorkers featured in our permanent installation New York Rising were connected not only to the New-York Historical Society, but to him. Below are just a few of those connections.
In the first section of New York Rising is our portrait of Lafayette by Francesco-Giuseppe Casanova. Both Lafayette and his son George Washington Lafayette were made honorary members of N-YHS in 1824. Our portrait of him in Lafayette’s Return is dated to 1785–90.
Also in the panel, directly beneath Lafayette, is our 1809 bust of Thomas Paine by John Wesley Jarvis. (Paine was not a member of N-YHS, but Jarvis was). Paine and Lafayette were friends and intellectual comrades. Paine’s important book for the French revolution, The Rights of Man, is even dedicated to Lafayette. And when Lafayette wanted to send the key to the infamous Parisian prison, the Bastille, to George Washington, who did he give it for safekeeping, but Paine. Lafayette trusted the key in his care until it reached Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, where it remains today.
Of course, there is the bust of George Washington. Lafayette and Washington had an extremely close relationship and the special installation showcases their personal correspondence. In many ways, Washington considered Lafayette as a son he never had; similar to the relationship between Washington and Alexander Hamilton. The bust of Washington is by Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon was a Paris-based artist who sculpted famous figures of the day, including Jefferson (honorary N-YHS member), Franklin, and Lafayette. This bust is, by act of Congress, the model for Washington’s profile on the current quarter coin.
In the third section, Capital, is a portrait of a lesser-known Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, who served as a president of the N-YHS. In 1789 Morris went to Paris to join a on business venture and remained there for nearly a decade. The following year, President Washington appointment him the American minister to France 1792–94. A key connection to Lafayette is that Morris was instrumental in helping Lafayette’s wife Adrienne de Noailles escape France so she could join Lafayette in exile. A letter from her to her husband announcing that she and two children were coming is on display in the special installation.
In the fourth section of New York Rising, Politics, is the bust of Hamilton by Giuseppe Ceracchi. When Lafayette first arrived in the United States he was 20 years old. Both Hamilton and Lafayette served under Washington. Hamilton led the American combat unit under Lafayette at Yorktown in the fall of 1781. It was their October 14 attack on British Redoubt 10 that was one of the key events forcing Lord Cornwallis (decidedly not a member of N-YHS) to surrender on October 19.
Lafayette came to America to fight for American independence. Beyond his links to the U.S., Lafayette has many New York and New-York Historical Society connections. Our special installation showcases important documents and artifacts highlighting his American and local ties. So don’t miss out. Come learn about our adoptive French Founding Father in Lafayette’s Return.