Behind the Art: Fort Ligonier namesake rendered by renowned portraitist

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Nov. 21—On the wall opposite the entrance to the Fort Ligonier art gallery is the painting of a white-wigged soldier on horseback, apparently in the thick of battle.

"Most visitors naturally assume it's George Washington," said Julie Donovan, the fort's director of marketing and public relations.

But it's not.

Rather, it's "Field Marshal John Ligonier," a 1760 oil on canvas by the 18th-century British portrait painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The subject of the portrait was born Jean Louis de Ligonier in 1680 in southern France, a French Huguenot exile who distinguished himself during a long career in the British Army under the Anglicized name John Louis Ligonier.

Unlike Washington, Field Marshal John Ligonier never set foot in North America, let alone visited Fort Ligonier. He served as commander-

in-chief of British land forces in the mid-1700s and also as a member of Parliament and governor of Guernsey.

The wilderness fortification along the Forbes Road was named in his honor in 1758 by Gen. John Forbes, leader of the French and Indian War expedition across Pennsylvania to capture Fort Duquesne, the French outpost at what is now Pittsburgh.

"People get a little confused, because it's a British fort with a French name," Donovan said.

It's the white wig that confuses people about the man on horseback in the painting, she added.

"The public image is of the older George Washington, so when people look around the room, they think that's him," Donovan said.

The equestrian portrait was the first piece of art acquired by the fort, the gift of an anonymous donor in 1961.

It is particularly notable — and valuable — because it is the original portrait for which the field marshal actually sat.

Born in 1723 in Devon, England, Reynolds was a leading British portraitist and major European artist of the 18th century.

In 1740, he was apprenticed to the fashionable London portrait painter Thomas Hudson, also a native of Devon.

He subsequently traveled to Italy, where he spent two years studying the Old Masters and acquiring a taste for the "Grand Style" or "Grand Manner" of painting, an aesthetic style derived from classicism and the art of the High Renaissance that idealized its subjects and incorporated

visual metaphors to imbue them with noble qualities.

He returned to London in 1752 and quickly became a favorite portraitist of the noble classes, also moving among the ranks of the city's intelligentsia, wealthy and famous.

Reynolds was an early member of the Royal Society of Arts, helped found the Society of Artists of Great Britain and became the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, a position he held until his death in 1792.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley by email at or via Twitter .