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Prospect Park

Marquis De Lafayette

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This bronze sculptural tableau depicts the French-born Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834) with an African American groomsman, and steed.  The nearly ten-foot-high relief by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) was a gift of Henry Harteau, a Brooklyn glass insurer of French ancestry, and was unveiled by representatives of the French War Commission in 1917.

French statesman and military leader Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert Du Montier Lafayette is best remembered for his role in the Revolutionary War. Sympathetic to the American cause, he aided the colonists with his experienced military leadership.  The Frenchman quickly became a favorite of General George Washington, who appointed him Major General in the Continental Army during 1777. The next year, Lafayette returned to France following the formal agreement of the France/United States alliance against Great Britain. Once in France, he actively lobbied for the allotment of increased military and financial aid for the Colonies. In 1780, Marquis de Lafayette returned to America and served valorously in the Virginia campaign, which forced the surrender of Lord Charles Cornwallis in 1781.

Lafayette later assumed a leading role in the French Revolution of 1789. He became a member of the National Assembly, from which position he prepared the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a bill of rights based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights (also a major source for the American Declaration of Independence).  He commanded the French National Guard and joined the Feuillants, a moderate political party that advocated a constitutional monarchy. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, Lafayette resumed his political career by serving as a member of the Chamber of Deputies in 1815 and from 1818 to 1824. He was lionized during a triumphal tour of the United States in 1824, as a statesman and general who upheld the convictions of democracy, social equality, and religious freedom.

The sculpture shows Lafayette at center with stoic demeanor, while to his left the horse appears to nip at the groomsman who seems to recoil to avoid injury, lending giving humanity to the otherwise formal narrative. French’s method of “sketching” in the clay model lends naturalism to the modelling and overall composition. He is said to have based his sculptural interpretation in part on a painting Lafayette at Yorktown by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon, as dictated in the bequest by Harteau. Some historians have speculated that the figure of the groomsman in Le Paon’s painting and other related engravings of the time is James Armistead (Lafayette). Lafayette was a staunch abolitionist. His association with Armistead and role in gaining his freedom is a compelling story, but neither Le Paon nor French mentioned Armistead in written descriptions they composed of their works. Evidence of this fact is inconclusive, and remains a subject of debate among scholars. 

James Armistead (c. 1748 – 1830) was born into slavery in Virginia, taking his last name from his owner William Armistead. He volunteered for military service during the Revolution, and served Lafayette as a spy, posing as a runaway slave to gain information beyond enemy lines, which was instrumental in the successful Yorktown campaign. In 1784, in acknowledgement of his valor, Armistead was granted freedom by the Virginia legislature. In gratitude to the Marquis, he adopted Lafayette as his last name. He later became a prosperous farmer in Virginia, owning slaves himself.

The sculptural relief is set within a pink granite arched setting framed by Corinthian pilasters designed by noted architect Henry Bacon. French also collaborated with Bacon on the marble sculpture of Lincoln at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial (1911-22). French sculpted the Richard Morris Hunt Memorial (1896-1901) in Central Park as well as the Four Continents (1903-07) at the U.S. Customs House (now the National Museum of the American Indian) in Lower Manhattan.

Lafayette is represented in two other monuments that figure prominently in city parks, both designed by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904), who created the Statue of Liberty (1886). One is a larger-than-life-sized bronze depiction of the general in Union Square Park (1876), and the other in Harlem’s Lafayette Park, a sculpture from 1890 that depicts George Washington greeting the Marquis.

Photo of Marquis de Lafayette monument, Prospect Park

Photo of the Marguis de Lafayette statue in Prospect Park Brooklyn

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