It's rare to see portraits of any of the Founder generation as teenagers. In the 18th century, very few people ever had their portraits painted, and then only after they'd become older, famous, and rich.
But here's a seldom-seen portrait of "American's favorite fighting Frenchman", Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, as a painfully geeky fifteen-year-old in 1773. He was tall for the time at 5’9”, and socially awkward. With popping eyes, a long nose, and small mouth, he was never going to be a handsome man, and he wasn’t at this age, either.
An orphan, he’d already inherited his title, a sizable income, and his family’s estate, and this portrait might have been painted to commemorate his presentation at the French royal court at Versailles. He is certainly dressed for it, in costly silk and lace and a black silk bow at his throat. His cocked hat is tucked beneath his arm, as a gentleman does, and his hand rests lightly on the hilt of his dress sword. The ornamental loop on his shoulder may refer to his rank as second lieutenant in the King's Musketeers.
That’s his real hair, not a wig, but slicked back with a sticky, perfumed, fat-laden cream called pomade. His side curls (called buckles) are pinned neatly into place, and his queue (ponytail) is clubbed and beribboned. Then his entire head was dusted with white powder - the height of formality for court.
When this portrait was painted, he was in most ways already regarded as an adult.
In 1774, he married Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles; he was sixteen, and she fifteen. In 1776, their first daughter - Henriette du Motier - was born.
By September, 1777, shortly after his twentieth birthday, the young marquis was in a farmer’s field in Pennsylvania, fighting his first battle for General George Washington, the Continental Army, and the American cause of liberty. He was wounded in the leg, but heroically continued to command as long as he could.
And participating in the same battle was another young man who became the marquis’s life-long friend: Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, also twenty, and also an orphan with much to prove.
Above: “Gilbert Du Mottier Mis. De Lafayette a l’age De 15 ans” by an unknown French artist, 1773. Image via Sotheby’s.
Read more about Eliza and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.