On Friday, my husband and I visited the New-York Historical Society for the first time in many years. The purpose of our visit was to attend the exhibit called "French Founding Father: Lafayette's Return to Washington's America." In 1824-1825, the Marquis returned to the United States as the last surviving general of the American Revolution. His visit was a cause for national celebration, and the elderly Marquis was lionized everywhere he went. I was particularly interested to see the exhibit because Lafayette stayed at the home of my ancestors when he visited St. Louis, Missouri during his triumphal tour of the United States, and indeed a sketch of the house was on display. The exhibit did not disappoint. Among the items on display that particularly caught my eye were a key to the Bastille that Lafayette presented to George Washington; a chair originally purchased for Versailles by Marie Antoinette that made its way to the New-York Historical Society--Lafayette used it when he visited the Society during his visit to New York City; a letter from Lafayette to Washington urging him to free his slaves, something Washington did not do during his lifetime; a small coach that Lafayette rode in during his tour of New England; several portraits of Lafayette; Lafayette's copy of the Declaration of Independence--Thomas Jefferson consulted with the Marquis while he was drafting it; Lafayette's copy of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, in whose drafting Lafayette participated; and many objects that were manufactured specifically to commemorate the Marquis's visit. The curators argue that the works of art and objects made for the visit functioned as "vehicles for the invention and elaboration of forms of American identification and patriotism that still permeate our national lives today." The portrait above, which is on display at the Society, was painted by Edward F. Peticolas in 1824, and is from the Valentine Richmond History Center.
Because it was pouring and a walk in Central Park was out of the question, we decided to explore other parts of the collection. I had forgotten about the Society's fine collection of Tiffany glass, especially lamps, and about its fine collection of American portraits. The art collection no longer hangs in the galleries (they are now used for special exhibits), but is now located on an upper floor that was mostly deserted. Frankly, the way these priceless portraits are displayed is unfortunate. Nonetheless, walking through the narrow aisles, I was moved when I saw portraits of the founders of our country--James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton--and of Dred Scott, who fought to give meaning to the words of the Declaration of Independence.