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By Valerie Kauffman, historic-site interpreter, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs
“Give me liberty, or give me death!” was the defining phrase of America’s push for independence. Revolution, liberty and political rights are themes that have frequently been portrayed in art and have been the banner for many great artistic creations. Denis Alexandre Volozan was well aware of the power of the visual arts to arouse patriotic emotions and was happy to oblige when he was commissioned in the year 1800 to paint one of the first post-mortem portraits of George Washington.
Volozan was born in Lyon, France in 1765 and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris before ultimately making his way to Philadelphia in 1799 where he lived, respectively at 209 S. Second St. and 109 Spruce St., in an environment filled with artists and intellectuals including many recent arrivals from war-ravaged Europe.
As a 34-year-old artist and teacher working in the capital of the newly independent United States, Volozan lived in a world that was roiling with revolutionary and patriotic fervor. On Nov. 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte engineered a coup and became First Consul of the Republic thus bringing to a close the republican phase of the French Revolution. The American Revolution had ended in 1783 and the Haitian Revolution was still in full swing.
Circa 1800, Volozan painted a heroic portrait in ink and wash of Toussaint L’Ouverture on his horse Bel-Argent. L’Ouverture was the most noted leader of the Haitian Revolution which eventually led to the world’s first independent country founded by former slaves. Volozan depicted L’Ouverture riding on a white horse charging into battle in the same way that George Washington and Napoleon had been portrayed by other renowned artists. The white horse was symbolic of the ideals of good and right.
On Dec. 14, 1799, George Washington died at the age of 67. Subsequently, during the opening session of the Delaware Senate on Jan. 10, 1800, Sen. John Vining introduced a resolution, which was seconded by Sen. Isaac Grantham and unanimously adopted that “in commemoration of the afflicting event an elegant and full portrait, large as the life, with suitable devices and suitable motto, bearing the resemblance of this first of heroes and greatest of men, be produced at the expense of the State, as soon as it conveniently can be done.” Shortly thereafter, Volozan was commissioned to paint the portrait of Washington which he completed in 1802.
Volozan was influenced by the French neoclassical stylists of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. Symbolism and moralizing historical figures were characteristics of portraits of that period. His 5 feet 3 inches by 7 feet 2 inches, oil on canvas, portrait of Washington has a classic background which includes a tent in striped fabric fashioned after the imperial military tent of Napoleon. In the landscape, cloud masses and mountain peaks were painted to magnify the figure in full uniform. Washington’s hand is resting on the U.S. Constitution placed on the table. He is represented as the “Defender of the Constitution.”
The portrait was officially dedicated on Jan. 19, 1803 and hung in Delaware’s State House. After undergoing its seventh restoration in 2007, it was returned to The Old State House and re-hung over the speaker’s desk in the Senate chamber where it remains to this day reminding us of revolution, liberty and political rights.