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Washington and Lafayette: A friendship immortalized in fine art

August 11, 2014

Filed under Collections, Fine Arts, Military History

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Curator Amy Hammond recommends Washington bids Adieu to Lafayette, painted by Frederick Kemmelmeyer around the year 1800, as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.

An antiques dealer bought Washington bids Adieu to Lafayette from a tavern in Turtle Creek, Pa. It was subsequently acquired and donated to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission by Mrs. Roberta F. Griffith of Sewickley, Pa. in honor of her ancestor, John Phillip Waugaman, who served in the Berks County Militia during the Revolutionary War.

This oil-on-canvas painting is significant because it was created by a Revolutionary-era artist who sketched George Washington from life, symbolizes the hope for a new nation and exemplifies an early-American style of painting.

In this ovoid history painting, Kemmelmeyer portrayed famous friends George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette parting ways with the Hasbrouck House on the right and the Hudson River in the background. Washington, in a blue-and-gold uniform, rides in front of Lafayette, who wears a green overcoat and a red waistcoat. Washington lifts his tricorne hat as he and his horse look back towards Lafayette. The Frenchman is tucking his right hand in his overcoat. While this pose was common in aristocratic portraiture, it would have made horseback riding a difficult pursuit.

Washington was stationed at the Hasbrouck House from April 1, 1782 to Aug. 19, 1783. Here, he signed the 1783 peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Kemmelmeyer placed the main characters in the foreground and dedicated a large portion of the painting to the building and Hudson River landscape where this monumental event occurred, possibly to symbolize broader themes including the promise of a new-found peace and opportunities of a vast nation. Despite the battles and military successes Washington and Lafayette experienced together, this painting represents a moment of peace, hope and admiration.

Washington and Lafayette first met at a dinner party in Philadelphia in August 1777. At the time, Lafayette, 20, was a wealthy French aristocrat who had become mesmerized by the cause of the American Revolution. Washington was a 45-year-old general. The two men struck up a friendship based on mutual respect and loyalty. Their meeting occurred not long before the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where Lafayette was shot in the leg. After receiving medical care from Washington’s personal physicians, he recovered in Bethlehem, PA. Lafayette remained loyal to Washington through difficult times including the harsh winter at Valley Forge.

The pair remained friends for 22 years until Washington’s death in December 1799. Despite the accuracy of the sentiment, Kemmelmeyer’s depiction of their last encounter is fictional. Washington said farewell to the army in Newburgh in November 1783, but Lafayette was in France at the time. He later returned to visit Washington at Mount Vernon in 1784.

Although Kemmelmeyer’s exact birth dates are unknown, he lived from roughly 1755 until 1821. Most of his recorded history appears in the form of advertisements for artistic training. Such announcements appeared in newspapers in numerous cities including Chambersburg, Baltimore and Alexandria. He is known for his history paintings and portraits, including those of George Washington. Kemmelmeyer sketched Washington from life in New Cumberland, Maryland in 1794. At this time, the artist noticed the smallpox scars on the general’s face. Never one to miss a detail, Kemmelmeyer would include the scars on later portraits.

His style has a combination of ambitious subjects and a lack of technical training that is unique to colonial America. Portraits and history paintings were in high demand in America’s exhilarant early years. The demand outweighed the production capabilities of the academic  artists. Untrained painters like Kemmelmeyer helped to increase the supply. History painting was a grand undertaking for an artist such as Kemmelmeyer. His lack of artistic training is evident in the unusual perspective and proportions. For example, the bodies of Washington and Lafayette are almost the same size as the horses they ride. In addition, his lack of understanding of the human proportions can be seen in the size difference between Lafayette’s legs and tiny feet. What Kemmelmeyer lacked in polish, he overcame with intentions. The portraits of Washington and Lafayette are accurate and shown in great detail, despite the supposed distance between subject and viewer.

"Washington bids Adieu to Lafayette "

Frederick Kemmelmeyer created this oil-on-canvas painting, “Washington bids Adieu to Lafayette, ” around the year 1800.

 

About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.