ORLEANS — Isaac Snow was no Anglophile. The Eastham native, twice imprisoned by the British during the Revolutionary War, returned to America with the help of the French. In 1797, when the south parish of Eastham became its own town and needed a name, Snow urged that the new community be called Orleans in honor of the revolutionary spirit of a Gallic aristocrat who became known as “Citizen Equality.”
Just a couple of years ago, a portrait of Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orleans was donated anonymously to the town. Now the Orleans Cultural Council, which helped bring the Michael Magyar light sculpture of the duke to Eldredge Park last year, is raising funds to restore the painting and display it at town hall.
Debra Dickinson, a painting conservator, said the work is “an early copy, very early 1800s” of the original by Hyachinthe Rigaud, painter to the king, that hangs in Versailles. When she speaks of the duke, it’s as if he’s in the room with her.
“He’s someone you’d want to sit down and have tea with, or some other form of drink,” she said. “He just looks like a very interesting person, very charming… So many historical portraits are so severe looking. This fellow looks very approachable and curious and pleasant.”
But the painting itself “is in horrible condition,” said Dickinson, whose preparation for conserving art included studying the techniques of the old masters in Rome. “There have been two extensive restorations in the past, I can tell by examination, (but) what was done is not holding up. In fact, it’s making the job today a lot more complicated. I have to undo and reverse everything that’s already been done, remove all the former restoration.”
The portrait is showing “cracking that’s making almost elongated puzzle pieces on all the edges,” Dickinson said. Then “there’s cupping, pulling right up off the canvas. This is a very old painting, at least a couple hundred years old.”
The result of Dickinson’s work will be to “enable the piece of art to still show its place in history,” she said, “and yet always (respect) the artist’s original intent and allow that original brilliance to shine through again… The final result does not make the piece appear as if it was painted yesterday. I preserve the character that comes with age.”
You might say Louis Philippe is a character for the ages. Privileged by birth with connections to the royal family, he married the richest heiress in France. An advocate of a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy, he sided with the revolutionary movement, going so far as to change his name to Phillipe Egalite and become known as Citoyen Egalite. Although he voted for the execution of King Louis XVI, that was not enough to save his own head from the guillotine when his son was accused of plotting against the Revolution. Ironically, that son survived in exile and became the last king of France in 1830. The younger Phillipe visited the United States including, according to one source, Cape Cod in 1797, when the town of Orleans was named.
JoAnna Keeley, a former chair of the Orleans Cultural Council, approached the group about the restoration project. “We’re pushing it along because it kind of fits in with our mission to support the cultural environment, to help people see art and beauty and history and how it all works together,” council member Eileen Godin said. “We’re not a moneyed organization. We get a small stipend from the town and some money from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. We use that money to help fund local artists, performers, authors, painters, musicians so they can perform all these wonderful events for people who live in town. It gives the local people a chance to exhibit their wares.”
The council is hoping to raise $3,500 to restore both the painting of the duke and its frame. Checks made to the Orleans Cultural Council with the notation “portrait” can be mailed to Orleans Cultural Council, Orleans Town Hall, 19 School St., Orleans MA 02653. Contributions of $100 or more from businesses and residents will be recognized on a brass plate next to the painting on display in town hall.
Information from the Centers for History and Culture in Orleans and Wikipedia was used in this article.