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Tracing the mark left by the Marquis de Lafayette

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of the Marquis de Lafayette.
Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of the Marquis de Lafayette.Dwight Primiano

Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette is better known by his title. The Marquis de Lafayette was among the European soldiers who crossed the Atlantic to join the fight for American independence during the Revolutionary War. The Prussian baron Friedrich von Steuben had the most impact on the Continental Army. Others include the Poles Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

The Frenchman was and is the most celebrated, a fact attested to by "Lafayette: An American Icon," which runs at the Boston Athenaeum through Sept. 27. Why so celebrated? He was young, just 19 when he joined the Continental Army. He was an aristocrat, but one who put on no airs. He was French, at a time when France was the cynosure of culture and style. So appealing was his personality that George Washington came to consider him almost an adopted son and Thomas Jefferson offered him the governorship of Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase — this despite the fact that Lafayette had returned to France more than a decade earlier.


The letter making the offer, which Lafayette declined, is among the 75 items in the show. There are multiple renderings of Lafayette: busts, a life mask, prints, and oil portraits. Washington commissioned one of the paintings, in 1779, from Charles Willson Peale. Peale had painted Washington, and there's a marked resemblance in poses (which include what we now think of as a Napoleonic touch: right hand thrust into military tunic).

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 show devotes sections to Lafayette's service at Valley Forge and the battles of Brandywine and Yorktown. Oddly, there are no works relating to Lafayette's important role in the French Revolution. Only some wall text makes note of it. True, the subtitle of the show is "An American Icon." But no small contribution to that iconic status, on both sides of the Atlantic, was Lafayette's authorship of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Lafayette also led the National Guard of France and, in proposing a blue, white, and red cockade as its emblem, provided the inspiration for the French tricolor.

"Lafayette" includes letters from him (he wrote to his wife in French and to Washington in English), commemorative coins and letters, even souvenirs of his 13-month visit to the United States, undertaken in 1824 and 1825, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

It's no wonder there were souvenirs. The show includes a snuff box and small tray. More than half of the US population is believed to have seen Lafayette during his visit. The most striking object in the show is a sprig of cypress taken from Washington's tomb, at Mount Vernon, presented to a deeply moved Lafayette by Washington's step-grandson. Almost as unusual, if nowhere near as beautiful, is a piece of wood from the US Navy frigate Alliance, on which Lafayette twice crossed the Atlantic during the war.


A replica of the Hermione, the French frigate on which Lafayette returned to the United States in 1780, is scheduled to be in Boston July 11-12. The Athenaeum will be holding a fund-raiser on board. The invitation includes this information: "Stiletto heels are not permitted on the ship's deck and flats will be made available to all who need them." Good democrat that he was, one can imagine the marquis' amusement. Yesterday's sans-culottes is today's sans-talons aiguilles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.