273: Asa Park (Kentucky, 1790-1827) Portrait of Lafayet
Asa Park (Kentucky, 1790-1827) Portrait of Lafayette
Kentucky Portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, ca 1824-1825, a half-portrait of Lafayette, housed in an ornately carved gilt and gesso frame, unsigned; 27.75 x 23 in.
As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached, President James Monroe invited Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette to tour the United States and relight the fires of 1776. Lafayette, General George Washington’s cherished comrade-in-arms, left France on July 13, 1824 and landed on Staten Island, New York on August 15. During the next 15 months he was honored with great pomp and circumstance in all 24 states of the Federal Union. Aged veterans turned out in large numbers to cheer his progress, especially in Kentucky, where it was said that “although a nobleman by descent, he was a republican in principle, and was more ennobled by nature than by all the titles of hereditary.”
Lafayette’s visit to Kentucky was cause for celebration throughout the commonwealth. He had already been warmly greeted in Washington by Henry Clay, then speaker of the House of Representatives. In that chamber, to the right of the speaker’s rostrum, Ary Scheffer’s full length portrait of Lafayette hung, a present from the artist in 1823. Inspired by that gift, the Kentucky State Legislature commissioned Matthew Harris Jouett to paint a full length replica which was then placed on the right side of the speaker’s rostrum in the Kentucky State House. The Scheffer portrait became the inspiration for numerous engraving’s of Lafayette’s likeness, and is also the source for the portrait at hand.
The most likely painter of this portrait is Asa Park, (1800-1827). He first advertised himself, in the Lexington Reporter, November 10, 1816, as being from “Boston under the patronage of the celebrated Stuart and Penniman.” Penniman was a sign painter, from whom Park learned the skills required to create the sharply linear facial contours and strongly contrasting color values seen here. From 1818 until 1826, Park kept various studios in Lexington, notably the one listed in the 1818 city directory at Mulberry and Main. From this base he was active in Danville and other central Kentucky locations as an itinerant. He moved to Cincinnati in 1820 in response to the severe economic downturn in Kentucky’s economy. He returned to Lexington in 1823. Park was an active member of the Lexington Masonic Order, charged with creating displays for Lafayette’s grand reception. The Kentucky Reporter for May 23, 1825, notes that he painted an image of the “spread eagle of the United States” whose “execution is in a fine bold style.” It was placed in the principal room Lafayette visited, where “walls were ornamented with…portraits…contributed by our artists.”
Lafayette had been made a Mason by George Washington, the Grand Master Mason of America, and many of the leading political and military figures of the day in Kentucky were Masons. What better tribute could be placed in a Masonic Hall than a compelling portrait of this type created by Park? Feted at the Masonic Hall, Lafayette received a rapturous reception in Lexington. Mary Austin Holley, wife of Transylvania University President Horace Holley, composed an idyllic verse for him. “Let the love of our country pervade every breast, Till it wake every soul to intense emulation, Already its children in gladness are met, To raise the loud anthem to brave Lafayette.”
In April of 1826 Park closed his studio in Lexington, and died there in January of 1827. He was buried in the garden of his surrogate father, Edward West, on High Street, with full Masonic honors.
Estill Curtis Pennington
Lewis Collins, Historical Sketches of Kentucky, Cincinnati, Ohio: J.A. & U.P. James, 1847, p. 263.
William Barrow Floyd, Jouett-Bush-Frazer, Early Kentucky Artists, Lexington, Kentucky: 1968, p. 60. Subsequent head and shoulder portraits of Lafayette by Jouett are now in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and Mead Art Gallery at Amherst College, New Hampshire.
Estill Curtis Pennington, "The Larger World of Asa Park”, in A Boston Painter in Kentucky: Asa Park (1790-1827), Georgetown, Kentucky: Anne Wright Wilson Fine Art Gallery, 2006, p. 15.
James Ramage, Kentucky Rising…, Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2011, p. 13.
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