Pierre L'Enfant's Vision for the American Republic
January 18 – July 20, 2013
The French artist and engineer Pierre L'Enfant (1754-1825) made vital contributions to the early formation of the American nation and American identity. As a foreign volunteer during the Revolutionary War and, later, as a citizen of the new nation, L'Enfant created imagery, architecture, and city landscapes that memorialized America's republican principles of liberty and civic engagement. His work helped define the new American republic and present its ideals to the world.
L'Enfant's artistic talent, honed at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, caught the attention of General Steuben during the Revolutionary War. In 1778 Steuben chose L'Enfant to draw the illustrations for Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, the first official manual of the Continental Army. The Frenchman had volunteered to serve in the American army—largely made up of citizen-soldiers, like himself, with no military training—in 1776. Appointed an officer in the Continental Army Corps of Engineers, L'Enfant participated in the southern campaign, where he was wounded at the battle of Savannah and taken prisoner at Charleston.
At the close of the war, L'Enfant became an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati and created three emblems of membership for the organization that became artistic expressions of the achievement of American independence. L'Enfant's ink and watercolor designs for the Society's Eagle insignia, membership certificate, and medal—drawn from the Society's archives —are displayed together publicly for the first time in this exhibition.
Remaining in America after the war, L'Enfant designed monuments, buildings, parades, and other patriotic events celebrating the new nation. His design for Federal Hall in New York—the first seat of the United States Congress and the site of George Washington's first inauguration as president in 1789—helped usher in the Federal period and influenced American architecture for decades to follow. L'Enfant's work culminated in the 1791 plan for Washington, D.C.—a grand vision that would guide development of the American capital for the next century and beyond.