Paul Wayland Bartlett’s Lafayette on Horseback and World War I
In October of 2017, dignitaries and the public assembled in Versailles, France to witness the rededication of two monumental bronze sculptures: one of Pershing and one of Lafayette, which had been commissioned, but never completed, in the aftermath of World War I. What the contemporary celebrants seemed to not know is that Paul Wayland Bartlett’s monument to Lafayette was originally conceived as a gift to the French people, many years before the Great War appeared on the horizon. But, Lafayette on Horseback, first located in the courtyard of the Louvre, became associated with the Franco-American relationship of wartime victory. The Knights of Columbus adopted the symbol of Lafayette and only two years after the Armistice, erected a copy in Metz, the place from which Lafayette had decided to join the American Revolution, which was also one of the so-called “foyers of the Allied soldiers” put in place around France, to mark where Americans offered their “everyone welcome, everything free” huts.
The Knights of Columbus commission—born out of the re-assertion of Catholic socio-political position after the war, for both the United States and France—became a pilgrimage route to honor the war-time dead. Less than twenty years later, this second installation of Lafayette on Horseback was destroyed by the Germans in World War II. Thus, Paul Wayland Bartlett’s Beaux-Arts depiction of Lafayette in bronze, a traditional monument in form and presentation, offers a window into the ways in which artistic conceptions were adapted and adopted during World War I and long after, a story of creation, destruction, preservation, and identity.