Laura Auricchio recently visited the National Portrait Gallery to discuss her new book, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, as part of the museum’s “Meet the Author” series.
Her book examines the life of the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) and his role in French and American politics. Auricchio began her lecture by posing a question that a curator of the Château de Versailles asked her: “Why should we have a bust of Lafayette?” Auricchio pointed out that Americans view Lafayette as the French hero who helped secure a victory against the British. However, many French do not share that reverence. In fact, most viewed him as a traitor; he fled his homeland with a warrant out for his execution.
How is it, Auricchio asks, that Lafayette developed radically different reputations while adhering to one set of principles? In her book, she explains Lafayette’s desire for a reformed or constitutional monarchy. It was his moderation and idealism that alienated the marquis from royalists and revolutionaries alike.
Auricchio described Lafayette’s association with America as his most treasured possession. His relationship with George Washington was that of a father and son, and Benjamin Franklin advocated strongly on the young man’s behalf. After returning to Paris, Lafayette transformed his house to a sort of “American Museum” filled with gifts from across the Atlantic. His love for America was profound, and reciprocated. In fact, when he returned for a grand tour of the United States, Americans went Lafayette crazy. Towns, buildings, and streets were renamed after the Americans’ favorite French hero.
Adventurer John Ledyard wrote in 1787 that Lafayette “has planted a tree in America, and sits under its shade at Versailles.” Just as Lafayette was feted on his return to America, he was conspicuously mourned here when he died. Auricchio pointed out this was not the case in France: No eulogies were permitted at his gravesite, and in Paris his memory was quickly set aside.
So why did the French curator question Lafayette’s relevance for the collections of Versailles? The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered is Auricchio’s attempt to answer the Frenchman’s question. Looking back at his life, Lafayette was far from perfect and failed on multiple occasions. However he never gave up and, more important, he never wavered in his principles. Because of this, Auricchio’s answer is simple: “We owe it to him.”
—Catherine West, project assistant, National Portrait Gallery
Laura Auricchio, a scholar in both eighteenth-century French visual culture and contemporary art, currently serves as the chair of humanities and an associate professor of art history at the Parsons New School of Design. She previously held positions at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.