King Louis XVI sent thousands of French soldiers and sailors across the Atlantic to support the American War of Independence. It was an adventure none of them would forget.
The special exhibition, Revolutionary Reflections: French Memories of the War for America, on view at the American Revolution Institute
of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., from April 5 through October 27, 2019, explores how the kings officers understood the American Revolution and their role in the achievement of American independence, and how they remembered the war in the years that followedyears of revolutionary upheaval in France that included the execution of the king and many of their brothers-in-arms.
Drawn from the Institutes collections, along with loans from private collections, Revolutionary Reflections pairs the written recollections of French officers with life portraits of the writers, including masterpieces by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze and the great Spanish portrait painter Vicente López y Portaña. Among the treasures on view are the original manuscript memoir of General Rochambeau, who commanded the largest French army sent to America, along with his familys annotated copy of the published work.
Another highlight of the exhibition is the long-lost portrait of the marquis de Saint-Simon, who commanded 4,000 French troops at Yorktown, together with Saint-Simons manuscript journal of the Yorktown campaign. The portrait was long owned by the marquis descendants, but was hidden during the Spanish Civil War and then long forgotten. The American Revolution Institute acquired it and brought it to Washington in 2018. The portrait has never been displayed in a formal exhibition in the United States. The journalyet to be published in Englishhas never been displayed anywhere.
The most striking piece on view is a posthumous allegorical portrait of Thomas François Lenormand de Victot by Nicolas-René Jollain, painted in 1783. A French naval officer who died during the war, Lenormand is depicted opposing Death, portrayed as a skeleton in flight bearing a sickle. The Institute acquired this extraordinary painting in 2010.
The eight officers whose memories are featured in the exhibition were well-educated French nobles. They made sense of their wartime experiences through careful observation and documentation. Some were battle-tested veterans. Others, including the marquis de Lafayette, were young men when they arrived in America. The war for American independence was a defining event for all of them. Together their reflections remind us that historical memory is fragile, always shifting, and often very personal.