General La Fayette

General La Fayette

Gilbert Mottier, Marquis of La Fayette

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / image RMN-GP

Publication date: February 2019

Academy Inspector Deputy Academic Director

Historical context

General La Fayette in the service of freedom

Recognized painter of history and talented portrait painter, Joseph-Désiré Court put his art at the service of the July Monarchy. He therefore produced a portrait whose model was at the end of his life: La Fayette was 35 years old on the canvas, but 77 years old in 1834, the same year of his death.

Coming from an ancient aristocratic family and related to many influential figures of the end of the Ancien Régime, Gilbert Motier, Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834), inherited a solid fortune. "Hero of both worlds", he forms a sincere and reciprocal friendship with Georges Washington. One year later, during the feast of the Federation, he is experiencing the height of his fame and influence. Although his popularity is severely dented by his involvement in the repression of the Nancy garrison in August 1790 or in the Champ-de-Mars massacre on July 17, 1791, and that some denounce his alleged too close proximity to the royal family - despite strained relations with Louis XVI - La Fayette was appointed lieutenant general in 1791, invested in command of the Army of the Center, one of the three armies intended to defend France, then that of the North.

It is in this capacity that the painter Court immortalizes him, more than forty years later, deliberately choosing to show all at the same time a general, a liberal, a monarchist and a patriot.

Image Analysis

The aristocratic portrait of a general

Court's portrait belongs to the tradition of mid-thigh portraits of men and women of the nobility and the upper middle class; it is also in the vein of portraits of generals.

The canvas portrays a 35-year-old man with calm confidence, who looks at the viewer with a certain detachment. Obviously concerned with his dress and his appearance, wearing a powdered wig, he wears the uniform of a lieutenant general of the Army of the Center, which he commanded in 1791-1792. La Fayette is dressed in the full uniform of the lieutenants general of the national army: tunic of royal blue wool with a mounted collar, wide lapels crossed on the chest, long basques and whose indentation reveals on the front of the white jacket carried below; gold embroidery around the tunic, at the collar and on the sleeves; large buttons of gilded brass; large red and gold belt supporting the sword of command; bicorn hat wearing a plume of tricolor feathers, the colors of which echo those of the national cockade held by a braid of gold braid. The general nonchalantly holds in his right hand a map, a probable allusion to the campaign plans of his army, and in his left hand his headgear, which half hides the hilt of his sword.

There is nothing martial about the general's pose, however; it rather refers to a pre-romantic imagination, where nature - that of the rock on which La Fayette is leaning, that of the countryside in the background, bathed in a pinkish twilight glow - occupies a prominent place and seems to refer man to his interiority.


The memory of a legend

To paint La Fayette at the age of 35, at the time of the war that revolutionary France was going to wage against the European absolutist powers, Joseph-Désiré Court put forward the general and the ardent defender of freedom that the Marquis would have been throughout his entire life. In 1834, the year of La Fayette's death, the aim was to make the link between a present in search of legitimacy, that of a monarchy dubbed by a revolution, and a past attached to the revolutionary gesture in favor of freedom. . La Fayette then appears as a bridge, a "citizen of two worlds", not only that of France and the United States, but of the France of yesterday and that of today.

Yet La Fayette's personal history between the age at which he appears in this portrait and his age when it is painted testifies to a tumultuous life. From the end of August 1792, he fled France, understanding his powerlessness and that the capture of the Tuileries on August 10, 1792 is incompatible with his ideal of liberal moderation. Interned in Magdeburg then in Olmütz by the Austrians, he regained his freedom only in 1797 and returned to France in 1800. Withdrawn from all public office under the Empire, he was elected deputy under the Restoration and participated in the opposition liberal before endorsing the advent of Louis-Philippe Ier after the Trois Glorieuses in July 1830, during which he was brought by acclamation to the command of the Paris National Guard. A living symbol of the attachment to freedom, La Fayette brings to Louis-Philippe a share of legitimacy stemming from history and the ideal that he embodies, resigning himself to a constitutional monarchy guaranteeing public order to the detriment of a republic to which he actually claims to be more favorable. Louis-Philippe, however, quickly dismissed La Fayette from all responsibility, no doubt aware of what he represented in terms of competitive legitimacy.

The portrait of La Fayette by Court knows a great posterity in the XIXe century. It is reproduced by numerous engravings, which popularize and fix the image of the Marquis as a young revolutionary general, whose reputation served to establish the initially fragile foundation of the July monarchy.

  • La Fayette (Marquis of)
  • French Revolution
  • portrait
  • First Empire
  • Restoration
  • Louis XVI
  • July Monarchy
  • Three Glorious
  • Revolution of 1830
  • Louis Philippe
  • United States
  • american war of independence
  • National Guard
  • Federation Party
  • Washington (George)


WOOD, Jean-Pierre, La Fayette, Paris, Perrin, 2015.

GUENIFFEY, Patrice, “La Fayette”, in François FURET and Mona OZOUF (dir.), Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, Paris, Flammarion, 1992 [1988].

VINCENT, Bernard, Lafayette, Paris, Gallimard, Folio biography, 2014.

To cite this article

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