Only weeks after the allied French-American victory at Yorktown, the Virginia General Assembly voted in December 1781 to honor the Marquis de Lafayette in appreciation of his participation in the Revolutionary War. Three years later, the General Assembly voted to commission two marble busts, one to be presented to the city of Paris, France, and the other to be displayed in Virginia in close proximity to the statue that was to be commissioned of George Washington. Thomas Barclay, an American consul at Nantes, and Thomas Jefferson, then an American minister to France, both recommended the famous French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon. Houdon was commissioned, and Virginia received a bust in 1788. It is currently displayed in the Virginia State Capitol's Rotunda.
Lafayette was born in September 6, 1757, in Chavagnac, France, to an aristocratic family. He was orphaned young and inherited the title of marquis. In 1777, at age nineteen, Lafayette sailed for America because he was attracted to the ideals of the America Revolution. He was appointed a major general in the Continental army and quickly became close to General Washington. After being wounded in the leg at the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette returned to France in 1779, but was back in America by 1781. In the months leading up to the Battle of Yorktown in October, Lafayette commanded of the American army in Virginia. After the American Revolutionary War, Lafayette continued to support the ideals of democracy in France. He participated in the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830, served repeatedly in France's National Assembly, and was commander of the Paris National Guard. Between 1824 and 1825, Lafayette made a return visit to the United States, where he was honored by tribute parades and dinners. Lafayette died at La Grange, his estate near Paris, on May 20, 1834.
Houdon created a life mask of Lafayette in July 1785 and completed the marble busts in 1786. One was placed in the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The other was displayed in the Paris Salon of 1787 before being shipped to Virginia a year later. In Houdon's depiction of Lafayette, he is gazing serenely upward with his hair loosely tied back. Lafayette is shown wearing his American military uniform and the cross of the Order of Saint Louis and the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati. The bust is set on a formal, truncated Ionic column and is swathed in baroque drapery, which is a common aspect of Houdon's busts. An inscription in which the General Assembly specifically expressed its gratitude and esteem for Lafayette was added later.
Houdon created these busts during the height of his career as a sculptor. He was born in Versailles, France, in 1741. He trained under some of France's best artists, such as Michel-Ange Slodtz, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. In 1761 he won the Prix de Rome from the AcadÉmie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, an award that allowed him to go to Rome in 1764 to study at the AcadÉmie de France. In 1771 Houdon debuted at the Paris Salon, the premier exhibition in Europe and he became famous throughout Europe. Throughout his career, he was well known for portrait statues and busts of famous historical and contemporary persons, but also worked on outdoor statuary, interior sculpture, and decorative low reliefs. Houdon died in Paris in 1828, and is remembered as the finest sculptor in Europe in his time.
1. How did Lafayette help the Americans?
2. How is a portrait bust different from a portrait statue?
3. Where is this bust displayed? What other sculpture is it near?
1. Why is it important to have a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette in Virginia? Many other French soldiers were involved in the Revolutionary War, so why is he special?
2. Compare this sculpture to Houdon's statue of George Washington. What aspects of the two artworks are similar even though they are in two different formats?
Batson, Barbara C., and Tracy L. Kramerer. A Capital Collection: Virginia's Artistic Inheritance. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2005.
Kramer, L. S. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.