Lafayette and Washington In New York City Hall

The approximate 180 portrait paintings in the City Hall are the best collection of early American portraiture in the United States.

General Lafayette by Samual Morse
General Lafayette by Samuel Morse

The best known is probably the painting of  “General Lafayette for the City of New York” by Samuel Morse, the founder and the first President of the National Academy, professor at NYU, and inventor of the telegraph.  In August, 18254, Marquis-de Lafayette visited the US the last time and was hailed as a national hero. In New York,  the Common Council voted unanimously for a proposal calling for a full-length portrait of Lafayette. The competition was heated by the fact that Lafayette was now regarded as “one of America’s honored parents”. John Wesley Javis whose paintings are well presented in the Governer’s Room, James Herring, and John Vanderlyn all made formal requests. Rembrandt Peale even brought his life portrait of Washington to New York. But it was awarded to the young artist of 33 years old: Samual Morse. As a critic of that time, Paul Staiti said “The recent pictures of Vanderlyn and Peale were clearly inferior to their own work of two decades earlier, and Jarvis had done his best work soon after the War of 1812; Sully was strongly associated with Philadelphia; Ingham was a recent immigrant; Inman was unproven; and Waldo and Herring were technically inferior artists“.

John Adams by Samual Morse (courtesy to the Booklyn Museum)
John Adams by Samuel Morse (courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum)

Morse is a lifelong portrait artist: Even when he was frustrated by his failure to bid on painting one of the murals in the Capitol, he never gave up painting portraits. But his intellectual talent did not allow his consciousness to paint just convincing faces. He strongly believed the nobility of art functioned as a viable vehicle for elevating American political consciousness. In pursuing his artistic ideology, he had been somewhat successful. His portrait of the aging John Adams in 1816, though revealing the true nature of the sitter, didn’t match the public’s expectation of the image of the leader of a young country. His portrait of President Monroe, on the other hand, was placed immediately in the city hall of Charleston upon completion. The successful bidding of the portrait commission of Lafayette was a turning point in his career.  By the time contract was signed, Lafayette left New York to tour other states. It took him more than one year to complete the final portrait in the spring of 1826, during which time he lost his young wife.

James Monroe by Samual Morse
James Monroe by Samuel Morse

The final portrait was well-received. It actually serves as the source image of the ten-dollar bill. Here the ideology of liberty and democracy was clearly stated: noble but humane, firm but alert. Lafayette’s towering statue, broad shoulders, and strong-facing features make him a true individual.  There is a  sense of commanding, a touch of youthful exuberance, yet no one would fail to notice Lafayette was an old man by then who had tolled his heydays with American Revolution. With dramatic clouds echoing his dignity,  he looks right and his hand gently rested on the pedestal with the busts of Washington and Hamilton, indicating his ties with national founders and also emphasizing he joins the rank of immortality as a living statue.

As Staiti notes, “Morse’s portrait of Lafayette, which more than any other glorified his living majesty, was a public portal through which a lost state of grace could be reclaimed. Morse’s Lafayette allowed a divided polity to reenter a virtuous past, to feel once again the republican passion that was fading from daily life, and to be reunited as a people in their shared national mythology

The painting was cleaned in 2006 and showcased in New York Historical Society’s exhibition “French Founding Father: Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America” last year.

People don’t expect to see art in the government office, but those who do have a chance to go inside, they are rewarded with some best-known paintings. One of the oil studies that Morse made in July 1825 was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2005 (which was deaccessioned by New York Public Library) and subsequently bought by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art at a price of as high as three times the top estimate.

George Washington by John Trumbull
George Washington by John Trumbull

The highlight of the Governer’s Room should belong to the painting of George Washington by John Trumbull in 1890, commemorating the president’s departure from New York to Philadelphia. Trumbull is one of the best historical painters of that time and he arranged the paintings in such a way that not only narrates the whole historical event but also indicates the legacy that Washington has left. The painting shows the famous Evacuation Day on November 25, 1783, when Washington re-entered New York after seven years of British occupation. For a long time, Nov 25 was one of the most important dates in New York City. If one can get closer, there are a few British soldiers in the background diminutive in the secluded harbor scene. The unusual curved neck of the horse genuinely leads the viewer into the framed lower left corner where Bowling Green is now marked by an American Flag. Between the two front legs of the horse,  there is the empty pedestal that used to mount the Statue of King George III.

No one probably expects that there is great art in the city hall. But the tour is actually free.  All you have to do is to fill out a form online to reserve the date for the city hall tour. Or, if you know what council meetings are happening on that day, you can join the council meeting and possibly enjoy the great art at the same time.

2 thoughts on “Lafayette and Washington In New York City Hall

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s