J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

“Lafayette: An American Icon” in Boston

The French tall ship Hermione is scheduled to arrive here in Boston on Saturday, 11 July, and to stay for the weekend.

The welcoming events include a parade of reenactors, public tours of the ship, church bells tolling, crafts demonstrations on the Greenway, and the screening of a Gene Kelly film at the Museum of Fine Arts. The last seems like a bit of a stretch, especially since Lafayette didn’t like dancing.

Already the Boston Athenæum has been hosting an exhibit titled “Lafayette: An American Icon.” Curator David Dearinger wrote:
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. . . .

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.
I have to point out that Lafayette’s news in 1780 was that France was sending more forces. The French navy had already been active off North America for nearly two years at that point. Bostonians had seen thousands of French sailors. L’Hermione was thus neither the ship that first brought Lafayette to America nor the ship that brought news of the French alliance. But it was a grand ship, and its replica is said to be “the largest and most authentically built Tall Ship in the last 150 years.”

The “An American Icon” exhibition includes the statue shown above, “Jean-Antoine Houdon’s great bust of Lafayette, acquired by the Athenæum in 1828 from Thomas Jefferson’s descendants.” Alongside it are works from several other major American museums and libraries,

In the Boston Globe, Mark Feeney wrote of two of the later portraits:
In Samuel F.B. Morse’s painting, of 1825, sapling has matured into oak. The dashing young nobleman who had looked so boyish (and slightly supercilious) hasn’t just aged but thickened. Lafayette has the look of a character out of Balzac, and not necessarily a virtuous one. In contrast, Rembrandt Peale — son of Charles Willson Peale — painted him that same year looking considerably more avuncular, even rather sweet.
The exhibit will be at the Athenaeum until 27 September. Admission is free for members, $5 for everyone else.

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