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Monday, October 30, 2017

The Role of Portraiture in the Alliance of the United States and France

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and after the American Continental Congress had chosen the “United States” as the name for the new nation, the Congress adopted a model commercial treaty for France on September 17, 1776. One month later, Benjamin Franklin, one of the seven Founding Fathers, traveled to France with this model treaty, aiming to secure assistance in the war against Britain. After negotiations, in March 1778, King Louis XVI presented Franklin with the trade and defense alliance treaties, which had been signed in Paris on February 6 of that year. Through these treaties, the French extended their support to the Americans in the Revolutionary War.  Portraiture celebrated and strengthened the relationship between our two countries.

Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, c. 1785, oil on canvas,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.87.43)
Franklin’s fame as a philosopher, scientist, and statesman brought attention to the American cause, and he drew admirers among the French court at Versailles and in various intellectual circles. He served as minister to France from 1778 until 1785, and his likeness was captured in formal portraits as well as pieces made for popular culture by French artists. Joseph Siffred Duplessis, court painter to King Louis XVI, depicted Franklin’s strength of character in a series of paintings and pastels, with the earliest version garnering public attention at the 1779 Salon du Louvre exhibition. Leading artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, who created sculpture busts of several Founding Fathers, including Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, portrayed these subjects in neo-classical robes or historical costumes relating to democratic ideals.

In 1784, Houdon was commissioned to create a full-length marble statue of Washington for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, which led him to accompany Franklin on a trip to America. He visited George Washington at Mount Vernon in October 1785 and cast a life mask of him, which he used for his sculpture bust series, and in turn influenced other artists’ depictions. Although Washington never visited France, his image was celebrated in numerous portraits as president and military leader.

Thomas Jefferson, by Mather Brown, 1786, oil on canvas,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.99.66)
Statesman and philosopher Thomas Jefferson was portrayed in 1786, during his tenure as an American Minister in Paris, in a refined and formal manner by artist Mather Brown. This oil painting went to his friend John Adams and descended in the Adams family. Adams and Jefferson were brought together as trade negotiators in France, and they exchanged portraits as tokens of their friendship. In the portrait’s background, there is an allegorical sculpture of the figure of Liberty, holding a pole with a Phrygian cap at the top. Jefferson admired French culture and supported the country’s political ideals. From 1840 to 1848, King Louis-Philippe commissioned artist George Peter Alexander Healy to create a portrait series of American presidents and statesmen for the historical collection at the Château de Versailles, which included John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, John Paul Jones, George Washington, and Daniel Webster.

Several important group portraits documented the battles of the Revolutionary War and the following American treaty meetings with France and Britain. Around 1825, John Vanderlyn painted an oil portrait of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette that places them at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777.  Washington was impressed by the valor of young Lafayette who was wounded at this battle and recommended him for the command of a division in a letter to Congress. Lafayette was a heroic figure, who provided his own support and influenced state officials to send more French aid and forces to fight alongside the American military. King Louis-Philippe commissioned artist Auguste Couder to create the 1836 oil portrait of the Siege of Yorktown for the Château de Versailles (Galerie des Batailles). Generals George Washington, Comte de (Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur) Rochambeau, and Marquis (Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert) de Lafayette and other military officers are depicted with the Siege of Yorktown on October 17, 1781, in the background. This battle was a critical victory when the British General Earl Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Generals Washington and Rochambeau and the combined American and French military forces. Benjamin West portrayed the principal American Peace Commissioners John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin in two unfinished oil studies from 1783 for a larger painting, which was never executed of the Signing of the Treaty of Paris. The Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of the King George III government of Great Britain and the United States of America on September 3, 1783, in Paris, thereby ending the American Revolutionary War. This treaty and the separate peace treaties between Great Britain and the nations that supported the American cause—France, Spain, and the Dutch Republic—were known collectively as the Peace of Paris.

George Washington, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, c. 1786, plaster,
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG. 78.1)
Historic American portrait collections are at the Musée Carnavalet, Musée du Louvre, Musée National du Château de Versailles, Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur, and the Musée du Château de Blérancourt in France. Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris has created a special exhibition area to feature the portraits of honored American recipients of the order. On August 8, 1929, Anne Morgan presented a museum to France, which became the Musée National de la Cooperation Franco-Américain du Château de Blérancourt. This museum’s collection showcases the historical, cultural, and artistic relations of our two nations from the seventeenth century to the present. In America, the Society of the Cincinnati was founded in May 1783, and a French branch of the Society was established in January 1784. The two associations honor the military officers of our two nations who fought in the American War for Independence and seek to maintain the friendship between the United States and France. The Society of the Cincinnati Museum in Washington, DC, has a notable portrait collection of leading American and French officers who participated in the American Revolutionary War.

In 1966, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery founded the Catalog of American Portraits (CAP), a national portrait archive of historically significant subjects and artists from the colonial period to the present day. The public is welcome to access the online portrait search program of more than 100,000 records from the museum’s website:

Patricia H. Svoboda, Research Coordinator
Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Figure of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, by Charles-Gabriel Sauvage, called Lemire Pere, c. 1780–85, porcelain,  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (83.2.260)

John Adams, by Mather Brown, 1788, oil on canvas, Boston Athenaeum, MA, (B.A.UR.72)

George Peter Alexander Healy portrait collection, Musée National du Château de Versailles, FR

Washington and Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine, by John Vanderlyn, c. 1825, oil on canvas, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK, (0126.1018)

Siege of Yorktown, 17 October 1781, by Auguste Couder, 1836, oil on canvas, Musée National du Château de Versailles, FR, (MV 2747)

American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Negotiations with Great Britain, by Benjamin West, c. 1783–1819, oil on canvas, Winterthur Museum, DE, (1957.0856) 

General Editor Valérie Bajou et al. Versailles and the American Revolution. Versailles: Palace of Versailles and Montreuil: Gourcuff Gradenigo Publisher, 2016.

Ferreiro, Larrie D. Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017.

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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