DAR Exhibit Highlights Quilts Honoring General Lafayette

Posted April 16, 2010 at 3:23pm

The ebullient crowds that greet President Barack Obama when he travels abroad are a testament to his charisma, an allure that draws people to him across borders and time zones. But he is not the first leader to attract such international celebrity.

The French general Marquis de Lafayette was a crucial ally to the colonies in the American Revolution, forging a close relationship with then-Gen. George Washington in the process. When he returned to America in the early 19th century after having fought in the French Revolution, he received a hero’s welcome.

A new exhibition at the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum commemorates Lafayette’s legacy through a series of quilts that artists in America and France created for the occasion.

“Lafayette was a rock star of his era,” museum Director Diane Dunkley said. “We could not come up with a personality in today’s world that combined the political, social and celebrity elements that Lafayette had.”

The exhibition has its roots in the decision of Lafayette, La., in 2007 to commission quilts celebrating the 250th anniversary of Lafayette’s birth. The collection of quilts traveled to France, where French quilt-makers added their own contributions and requested additional quilts that reflected the culture of African-American artists in Louisiana.

Supplementing the quilts is the museum’s collection of artifacts from Lafayette’s 1824-1825 tour of the United States, which stretched as far north as Maine and as far south as Georgia. Jubilant crowds and honorary balls greeted him along the way. As evidence, the museum displays a pair of slightly worn silk shoes, bows on top tattered, worn by a woman who danced with him at an 1825 ball in New York.

America’s geographic and demographic history also bears witness to Lafayette’s stature. According to data culled by the curators, the U.S. contains 17 counties and nearly 75 towns or townships named Lafayette or derivatives such as Fayette, Fayetteville, etc. In addition, the 1850 Census shows that about 5,000 men named Lafayette were born from 1800 to 1850.

For the most part, the quilts celebrate Lafayette’s friendship with America. A quilt created by the Colorado Valley Quilt Guild in La Grange, Texas, bears black and white portraits of Washington and Lafayette as well as an image of them shaking hands as they depart Mount Vernon. Another quilt, titled “Roots of Freedom,” created by Christine Duhon Brosky in Lafayette, La., has images in the corners of the French and U.S. flags with blue bald eagles and the fleur-de-lis, (symbols of America and France), which surround a reproduction of a 3-cent stamp commemorating Lafayette’s visit.

Some of the quilts are more abstract, such as “Burgoyne Surrounded,” which employs a pattern of red squares emanating outward from smaller squares and refers to a battle in which Lafayette helped to encircle the British general John Burgoyne. “When Compasses Collide” employs an intricate pattern of blue and green mariners’ compasses that evokes a transatlantic connection.

The last addition to the collection is a series of quilts created by African-American artists, many of whom reference Hurricane Katrina. “Where Are My Shoes” is a jumble of playful, colorful images of household items that recollect Cecelia Tapplette-Pedescleaux’s mother’s persistent questions as they cleaned out her house in the storm’s aftermath. “Bad News Quilt” by Beatriz Ocampo incorporates quilt fragments that were stained and battered by the storm and scraps of newspaper photos and headlines about Katrina.

“Honoring Lafayette: Contemporary Quilts From France and America” is on display at the DAR museum (1776 D St. NW) until Sept. 4.