Purchase Story

Lost Portrait of Forgotten Hero of American Revolution Rediscovered

Research on both sides of the Atlantic has unlocked the identity of a portrait of a French general wearing a Spanish uniform with medals including a Society of the Cincinnati eagle insignia. He’s a forgotten hero of the Revolutionary War.

The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C., has acquired the portrait, now firmly identified as Claude-Anne de Rouvroy, marquis de Saint-Simon-Montbléru, who was instrumental in winning the final great battle of the Revolutionary War. The portrait is on display at the headquarters of the American Revolution Institute, the first time the painting has been on view in the United States in its 200-year history.

The portrait was painted between 1815 and 1818 by Spanish portrait painter Vicente López Portaña (1772-1850) and had been in private hands for 200 years.

Emily Parsons, deputy director and curator at the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, said, “We bought the painting from a fine art dealer in Madrid [José de la Mano]. He’s the one who brought it to our attention. He had done a good bit of the legwork to identify him. Even the family, who had owned the painting since before the 1930s, had lost the identity of who this person was. They did, however, always know—and historians confirmed—that this was the work of Vicente López.”

Parsons said José de la Mano started going back through publications, starting with the 1999 catalogue raisonné of López’s work. It included the portrait but identified it as an unknown Spanish general.

Another vital clue came from a 1902 catalog from a portrait exhibition, Exposición Nacional de Retratos, at the Prado in Madrid. It did not have an image but did identify a portrait of Saint-Simon by López. “That was the first clue that linked the two,” said Parsons. “It proved that López did paint Saint-Simon.” (A partial label from the 1902 exhibition remains on the back of the frame.)

The clincher came from the institute itself. “Among our library records was a French publication from 1934 of the original members of the French Society [of the Cincinnati] and their biographies,” said Parsons of La Societe des Cincinnati de France et La Guerre D’Amerique, 1778-1783 (The Society of the Cincinnati of France and The American War, 1778-1783). “In that book, it has a biography of Saint-Simon with an image of him—this painting—identified as him,” said Parsons. “We were one hundred percent sure.”

According to the institute, in the fall of 1781 Saint-Simon commanded some 3500 French soldiers. Arriving from the West Indies, they landed at Jamestown, Virginia, and joined the much smaller American army under Lafayette near Williamsburg. Together they kept Cornwallis pinned at Yorktown. Washington and Rochambeau arrived with the main French-American army from the north a few weeks later. Saint-Simon commanded the left wing of the allied army at the Siege of Yorktown, barring the roads toward Williamsburg and preventing the British from escaping by land.

Saint-Simon was wounded but refused to leave the lines until the British army surrendered. Though shot in the leg, he mounted his horse to take part in the surrender ceremonies.

Shortly thereafter, he sailed back to the West Indies with the French navy and never returned to the United States. “One of the main reasons Americans forgot him is that we didn’t know what he looked like,” said Jack Warren, director of the American Revolution Institute. “There wasn’t a single portrait on public display in the United States—or in Europe either.”

An aristocrat, Saint-Simon escaped France during the French Revolution and led a small army loyal to the king in a war against the French revolutionary government in the Pyrenees. He was made a general of the Spanish army and led Spanish troops against Napoleon. Captured by the French, he was sentenced to death for treason. Napoleon commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, from which he was released when Napoleon fell from power. He lived in Spain for the rest of his life.

In the portrait, Saint-Simon wears the elaborate uniform of a Spanish general, with the blue and white sash and star of the Order of Charles III, the highest Spanish military honor of the time. He also wears a gold and silver medal suspended from a yellow ribbon, presented by King Ferdinand VII to soldiers who suffered imprisonment at the hands of the French. Above them all is the eagle insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, the private patriotic organization founded by George Washington and his officers to perpetuate the memory of the American Revolution. Saint-Simon was an original member.

“We started searching for a portrait of Saint-Simon a decade ago,” Warren said, “when we were planning an exhibition on the Siege of Yorktown. We couldn’t find one. An old and not very good engraving in a mid-nineteenth-century book suggested that there was a portrait, but it seemed to be irretrievably lost. So much art was destroyed, damaged, or displaced in Spain during their civil war in the 1930s that we concluded that it may have gone missing then.”

“This is the perfect home for this portrait,” said Warren. “The purpose of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati is to ensure that Americans understand and appreciate the achievements of the American Revolution. Men like Saint-Simon who participated in it knew that they had been a part of something extraordinary. It’s our job to share their stories.”

For more information, visit the websites (www.societyofthecincinnati.org) and (www.americanrevolutioninstitute.org) or call (202) 785-2040.

Portrait of Claude-Anne de Rouvroy, marquis de Saint-Simon-Montbléru by Vicente López Portaña (1772-1850), 1815-18, oil on canvas, 80 cm x 73 cm (approximately 31" x 29").

The entry in La Societe des Cincinnati de France et La Guerre D’Amerique, 1778-1783 (The Society of the Cincinnati of France and The American War, 1778-1783) was the final confirmation that the identification of the sitter was correct.


Originally published in the May 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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