“As Large as Life”: Lafayette's Portrait

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette/tiles/non-collection/2/2-18-lafayette-portrait_2005_018_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, the first foreign dignitary to address a Joint Meeting of the Congress in 1824, was presented to the House by French artist Ary Sheffer that year in honor of the occasion.
What becomes a military legend most? For the Marquis de Lafayette, dashing hero of the American Revolution, the portrait now in the House Chamber was just the thing. Arriving from France in 1824, it was a huge hit across the nation. Becoming the most famous image of Lafayette during his wide-ranging tour of the United States that same year, the portrait appeared on posters, memorabilia, and even on currency.

Artist Ary Scheffer gave the portrait to the House in honor of General Lafayette's 1824-1825 tour of America. And it wasn't just a handsome present. It was a complete surprise. In January 1825, the House displayed its new artwork in the Capitol Rotunda. Newspapers described the portrait "as large as life, and . . . the best portrait we have ever seen. Its fidelity to the venerable original is, indeed most admirable."

The portrait stayed in the Rotunda for the rest of Lafayette's 13-month stay in America. Artists across the country wanted to paint his picture. Those who couldn't get the busy General to sit still made copies of the House's portrait instead. Easels and paint palettes crowded the Rotunda. Kentuckian Matthew Jouett was one such artist. The Kentucky state legislature commissioned him to paint Lafayette for the statehouse. Jouett arrived in Washington, but too late. The general had already left town, but left behind word that he had a solution. Jouett could paint a copy of the House portrait, and when Lafayette's tour arrived in Kentucky, he would give the young man an hour's time with him to "correct" his version.

Lafayette clearly knew how useful the House portrait was. Its ready availability, coupled with the knowledge that it was Lafayette's favorite image of himself made it immensely popular. Lafayette gave it an even wider audience by handing out engravings of the portrait wherever he went. Local printers made pirated copies for every kind of souvenir imaginable. It even made its way onto money. All the currency engravers who supplied American banks had the Lafayette images available for their clients, and it was used by banks in 27 states. Half a century after his revolutionary fervor brought him to America, Lafayette returned to become the first foreign dignitary to address the nation's Congress and to appear on the nation's money.

Sources: August Levasseur (trans. Alan R. Hoffman), Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825 (Manchester, NH: Lafayette Press, 2006); Marc H. Miller, “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour and American Art,” in Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1989).