Enfilade

Exhibition | Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe and the Battle of Yorktown

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 30, 2017

Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberge, The Siege of Yorktown, 1786; gouache on panel, 24 × 37 inches
(Private Collection of Nicholas Taubman)

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Press release (24 August 2017) from the Museum of the American Revolution:

Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe and the Battle of Yorktown
Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, until 24 September 2017

Only one month remains to see two 18th-century paintings depicting the last major land battle of the Revolutionary War on display at the Museum of the American Revolution. The paintings, The Siege of Yorktown and The Surrender of Yorktown, are incredibly detailed and populated with hundreds of tiny figures, like 18th-century ‘Where’s Waldo?’ scenes. The original versions of the paintings were created for King Louis XVI by French artist Louis-Nicolas van Blarenberghe, the court Painter of Battles to the King. Those paintings are on display at the Palace of Versailles. The paintings on view at the Museum of the American Revolution are secondary versions created by Van Blarenberghe in 1786 for French General the Comte de Rochambeau, the commander of the French forces at Yorktown. The paintings remained in the Rochambeau family until about 15 years ago and are in pristine condition.

“We are thrilled to be able to offer our visitors the extraordinary opportunity to view these incredible, richly detailed paintings,” said Museum President Michael Quinn. “The discovery of previously undetected differences between the two sets of paintings is a fascinating detective story, making the paintings all the more intriguing.”

Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberge, The Siege of Yorktown, 1786; gouache on panel, 24 × 37 inches.

Having researched the paintings, Christopher Bryant, a Massachusetts-based independent scholar and dealer of historical portraits and artifacts, believes that Rochambeau gave direction to Van Blarenberghe in the execution of the paintings on display at the Museum. Bryant argues that, given the interest taken by Rochambeau in the paintings as visual records of the crowning achievement of his career and the fact that he was an eyewitness to the events depicted, the differences between the paintings are likely corrections made from the originals, rendering Rochambeau’s copies even more historically accurate than those painted for King Louis XVI.

Louis-Nicolas Van Blarenberge, The Surrender of Yorktown, 1786; gouache on panel, 24 × 37 inches.

The most prominent alteration to the 1786 version of the Siege is the addition of a group of American officers near the figure of Rochambeau. While the original painting includes only one American officer holding a map, the replica depicts a group of ten officers gathered around that original figure, now identifiable as General George Washington. The map he holds can be identified as a plan drawn by Lafayette’s cartographer of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Interestingly, this same scene is reprised in Louis-Charles-Auguste Couder’s Siege of Yorktown (1836), a 19th-century copy of which is displayed on the Museum’s second floor.

“These paintings are remarkable in being superb works of art while also being extraordinarily accurate and detailed. It is very rare that you have that combination as those two circumstances are usually mutually exclusive,” said Bryant. “However, these paintings are both: they are wonderful paintings on an artistic basis, but there is also so much historical information within them that can be independently corroborated, that they can now be seen as important historical documents in their own right. The Surrender provides one of the most accurate accounts of this historic event known.”

Other changes to the paintings include alterations to the uniforms worn by Rochambeau and Washington, several topographical revisions, and the addition of a tree to obscure portions of a scene in Surrender. Van Blarenberghe also altered the location of the Metz Artillery, the senior French artillery present at the battle, within the Surrender painting. This change reveals the important role the Metz Artillery played in the surrender ceremony.

The paintings, on short-term loan from Ambassador and Mrs. Nicholas F. Taubman, are located in one of the Museum’s final galleries that explores the battles and skirmishes in 1781 that culminated with the Siege of—and ultimately, the Surrender of General Cornwallis’s 6,000-man British army at—Yorktown, Virginia. They will be replaced with two 18th-century prints from the Museum’s collection, one of British General Charles Cornwallis and one of British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

 

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