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Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds

The Queens Museum, June 9-August 13, 1989
Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, October 5, 1989-January 21, 1990
The Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Massachusetts, February 11-May 20, 1990

My work at the Queens Museum began to range even farther away from the downtown milieu I knew at 98 Bowery. Director Janet Schneider encouraged me to develop my doctoral dissertation, “Lafayette’s Farewell Tour of America, 1824–25: a Study of the Pageantry and Public Portraiture,” into an exhibition timed for the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.

William Gerdts, my thesis adviser along with Robert Rosenblum, had initially encouraged me to narrow down my overly broad proposal on American political art and to focus on Lafayette’s farewell tour. Lafayette, the French aristocrat who had joined the American Revolution at age seventeen, and later participated in the French Revolution, was always pure gold for me. The topic of the farewell tour—which had itself celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of American independence— was perfect for the contemporary American bicentennial celebrations, and earned me a Smithsonian fellowship. Several years later, the exhibition about Lafayette, a human link between the American and French Revolutions, received substantial funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Suddenly I wasn’t working with graffiti and East Village art, but with some of America’s great historic treasures. The exhibition, Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds, had the support of the French embassy, and was given official bicentennial status. Among the major loans was Charles Wilson Peale’s portrait of the young Lafayette, originally commissioned by George Washington to hang in Mount Vernon next to Washington’s own portrait (also by Peale). There was also Samuel F.B. Moore’s portrait of the 67-year-old Lafayette during the Farewell Tour, silhouetted against a sunset—generally considered one of the masterpieces of American Romanticism. I even went to Paris and met with the head of the Louvre, Pierre Rosenberg, who agreed to lend Ary Scheffer’s deathbed portrait. The catalogue, with essays by leading Lafayette historians Stanley J. Idzerda and Anne C. Loveland (in addition to myself), was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and received an honorable mention from the New York State Historical Association’s Henry Allen Moe Prize for Catalogs of Distinction in the Arts.

This project set the tone for many of my later endeavors: biographical exhibitions that freely combined historical documents and visual art. In addition to portraits, the exhibition included dresses worn at Lafayette’s balls, a carriage he rode in, a key to the Bastille, and Lafayette’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man (with marginal notes by Thomas Jefferson). We piped in recordings of waltzes and marches that had been written specially for the farewell tour.

Studying Lafayette’s farewell tour also prepared me, as a curator, to work on the public programs that accompany exhibitions. Throughout the thirteen months that Lafayette travelled through the country’s twenty-four states, he was honored with every sort of ceremony, and engaged in every imaginable form of commemorative activity. These would inspire the public events I planned to commemorate the World’s Fair anniversaries, and to honor other exhibition subjects like Louis Armstrong and the Ramones.

Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds exhibition catalogue cover
Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds: The Art and Pageantry of his Farewell Tour of America, 1824–1825. Exhibition catalogue, published by University Press of New England.
>Invitation to Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Invitation to "Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds" at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The exhibition also travelled to the Museum of Our National Heritage in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Exhibition Guide for Lafayette, Hero of Two Worlds, Queens Museum, 1989

Queens Museum Lafayette exhibition guide. Queens Museum Lafayette exhibition guide.
Queens Museum exhibition guide.

New York Times Book Review

Click on image to read the review on nytimes.com
Lafayette catalogue review in the New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1989.
The catalogue was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review of July 2, 1989.