On October 17, 1824, the Dutch-born Parisian artist Ary Scheffer wrote a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives informing him that he had “sent by the ship Cadmus . . . a full-length portrait of General Lafayette painted by me, which I pray you to do me the honor to accept for the Hall of the House of Representatives over which you preside. As the friend and admirer of General Lafayette and of American liberty, feel happy to have it in my power to express in this way my grateful feelings for the national honors which the free people of the United States are at this moment bestowing on . . . the man who has been so gloriously received by you as the ‘Nation’s guest.’”1Fairman 1927, 85–86. Ary Scheffer was born in Dordrecht when Holland was a new French department under control of the French revolutionary army, and thus he was French under civil law.
Although the portrait only reached Washington a month after Lafayette had addressed Congress in the House chamber, it has hung there continuously since January 20, 1825, in fitting tribute to a great hero of our Revolution. The “national honors” then being extended to Lafayette, and to which Scheffer alluded, accompanied the thirteen-month tour of America that the general undertook, in which he traveled to every state in the nation. Not only did the citizens, whose admiration and love for him were unbounded, have the opportunity to express their gratitude, but Congress voted him a gift of $200,000 and a township and returned him to France on a United States warship, thus simultaneously restoring his personal fortune and his political influence.
It is against this background that the bust-length portrait in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms must be viewed, for it was painted to meet the demand for portraits of Lafayette that ensued after his return to Paris. It was painted by a virtually forgotten pupil of Scheffer named Adolphe Phalipon, who copied Scheffer’s portrait in 1825.2Very little information exists on Adolphe Phalipon. Neither birth nor death dates are recorded in biographical dictionaries of artists. The only evidence we have that he studied or apprenticed with Scheffer is Phalipon’s own entry in the 1879 Salon catalogue, two decades after Scheffer’s death and when he himself was an old man: “né á Paris, éléve de Scheffer.” The primary biographical notice is in Emile Bellier de la Chavignerie and Louis Auvray, Dictionnaire général des artistes de ľécole francaise (Paris, 1882, 1885; reprint New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1979), vol. 3. There are three listings that are surely all for the same man. In addition, there is an entry for “Phalipon (Mme), née Louise Vincent,” a painter of still lifes and portraits who probably became his wife (in the 1848 Salon catalogue they are recorded at the same address, 2, rue des Beaux-Arts). It is not known which of his teacher’s portraits of Lafayette he was copying. Scheffer’s life portrait of his friend was painted in 1818–19, when Lafayette was sixty-one and had just been elected to the Chamber of Deputies. It was shown at the 1819 Paris Salon. The civilian, republican costume of the general reflected his political principles, and its unpretentious simplicity was admired. In 1822–23 Scheffer made two replicas, one of which was given to the marquis, while the other went to America. Scheffer apparently retained the 1819 original, and of course there may have been a painting of the head that preceded that. But Phalipon’s reliance on Scheffer’s portrait is exact and unmistakable.
It is a superb copy, subtly and precisely painted, delicately modeled with shifting light and shadow. The sober, thoughtful expression that Scheffer memorably captured is faithfully preserved.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.