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Lafayette: An American Icon

June 17 – September 27, 2015

Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Jean-Antoine Houdon (French, 1741–1828), Marquis de Lafayette, ca. 1785, plaster bust, painted white, Athenæum purchase, 1828 (UH149). Image © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Born into one of France’s wealthiest and most prestigious families, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette (1757-1834) dreamed of becoming a champion of freedom and a hero of chivalric proportions. An inborn faith in human rights joined with a natural personal dignity to serve his plans well: by the time he was twenty years old, Lafayette was one of the most famous Europeans of his day. Beginning in 1777, when he left France for America to offer assistance in the American Revolution, he enthralled his countrymen and earned the adoration of the rebellious Americans. Within a year, George Washington thought of the young Frenchman as an adopted son, Lafayette considered himself to be a “citizen of two worlds,” and American patriots commonly referred to him as “Our Marquis.” Lafayette’s fame was assured when he went back to France in 1779 to plead the American cause—and subsequently returned to America with the French government’s promise of troops, ships, and financial support. This alliance turned the tide of the American Revolution and eventually led to the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, a historic event in which Lafayette participated.

The Boston Athenæum celebrates Lafayette and his role in the founding of the new United States with an exhibition of portraits and other images of Lafayette—paintings, sculptures, and engravings—as well as a small selection of contemporary documents, manuscripts, and maps. The exhibition is inspired by the recent historic reconstruction of Hermione, the frigate that brought Lafayette back to America in 1780. That ship, with its game-changing news, made landfall in Boston in April of that year, and its modern descendant will visit the city in July 2015. The Athenæum’s exhibition features works borrowed from a number of major American institutions, namely the American Numismatic Society, New York City; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; Cornell University Library, Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR; Lafayette College Art Collection, Easton, PA; David Bishop Skillman Library, Lafayette College; the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA; and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland; as well as the collection of Robert and Elizabeth Owens, Boston. These objects will join some of the Athenæum’s own Lafayette-related treasures, notably Jean-Antoine Houdon’s great bust of Lafayette, acquired by the Athenæum in 1828 from Thomas Jefferson’s descendants. Lectures by scholars of the American Revolution and biographers of Lafayette; curatorial gallery talks; an audio gallery guide; and concerts of period French and American music are among the programs that will enhance the visitors’ experience and help to celebrate the achievements of this great patriot, “Our Marquis.”

David Dearinger, Ph.D.
The Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture
Boston Athenæum