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The Laffite Portrait Proves the Authenticity of the Laffite Journal

December 1, 2015 in European History, general history, History, Louisiana History

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

The 1804 portrait of Jean Laffite by Gros

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

Baron Antoine-Jean Gros self portrait from 1820

At least part of the Jean Laffite journal collection at Sam Houston Regional Library at Liberty, Texas can be proven authentic through association with a portrait of Laffite never a part of the archives of Sam Houston because it was lost in a house fire in 1959 at Spartanburg, S.C.. This portrait, showing Jean Laffite standing on the deck of a ship with a cannon nearby, is dated 1804 and signed “Gros”___for Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, art advisor to Napoleon and painter-chronicler of the Emperor’s military triumphs.

Gros was a well-known and highly respected French artist who specialized in historical Napoleon portraits under the tutelage of artist Jacques-Louis David. Gros had been introduced to Bonaparte in 1796 by Napoleon’s sweetheart, Josephine, in Milan when he was away from France for safety’s sake after the French Revolution. He returned with the Napoleonic entourage and became a valued member of the group’s artistic corps. He specialized in romantic, Rubenesque portraits of various officers and vast, mural-size paintings that have been called spontaneous and free in brushwork, spacious in atmosphere, and smouldering in emotive color by twentieth century art critics. Gros’ artistic star soared with Napoleon’s own comet of fame, and slowly declined in brightness after the French emperor’s death in 1821. Called the first great romantic painter, Gros by age 64 suffered from personal dissatisfaction in his later career. In despair, he drowned himself in the Seine in 1835.

The portrait of Jean Laffite which Gros created only exists today in the form of a 4 x 5 inch black and white negative in the Laffite Collection at Sam Houston, a negative which was used by Stanley Clisby Arthur in 1952  as a frontispiece black and white photo in his Jean Laffite, Gentleman Rover biographical book. Arthur had the photograph made during a visit to see the portrait, other paintings, and Laffite manuscript materials belonging to John A. Laffite, who was living in Kansas City, Mo., around 1950-51. The painting was on his living room wall, one of his KC neighbors recalled years later. Another black and white image of the same portrait was used as the frontispiece for the Vantage Press edition of The Journal of Jean Laffite, which John A. Laffite had privately published in 1958 after having the French journal translated to English.

Much controversy has ensued ever since among historians over the authenticity of the Laffite journal, and the Gros painting has been mostly overlooked through the years because it was lost, and because it appeared to be just a hastily done painting study, not a professional portrait.

(The Laffite journal and a few other holographic Laffite family materials escaped the house fire as they were in a trunk that was saved. All the paintings hanging in the house were destroyed. Strangely, even a part of the trunk’s contents was lost when they were caught in a fire at a radio and tv station in Spartanburg a feww months later in May 1960. The Laffite journal was in that second fire, and suffered fire damage along the edges, but survived intact. It and some of the other surviving parts of the Laffite Collection were sold by John A. Laffite in 1969 to collectors William Simpson and Johnny Jenkins of Houston for $15,000. Former Texas governor Price Daniel bought the lot in 1975 for $12,500, and donated all in 1978 to the newly created Sam Houston Regional Library.)

Everyone, including those in favor of the Journal’s authenticity, neglected to check on a simple way to assert the validity of the claim that the materials really were from famous New Orleans privateer Jean Laffite: all that needed to be done was to compare the Gros signature of the Laffite portrait to known Gros paintings of the same period. This seems simple, but until recently, it was not a quick thing to accomplish because Gros signatures were not easy to find to use for comparison purposes.

The majority of Gros paintings online are of small resolution, suitable for website galleries and web pages, but of utterly no use for checking the signature. This is especially true of some of Gros’ best known Napoleonic works, which are literally the size of walls. Even at high resolution, the signature on such works is often impossible to see. However, a few very high resolution scans of Gros art were examined, and signatures contemporaneous with 1804 were found. The Gros signature on the Battle of Aboukir painting (1806) at the Palace of Versailles is virtually the same as the signature on the Laffite portrait, and both signatures are found in the lower left corner of the artwork.

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Laffite portrait

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting

Gros signature on Battle of Aboukir painting





Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait

Gros 1804 signature on Jacques Amalric portrait










Some may question this and say “well, it could have been a painting forgery”, but the evidence is very much against this. The first American exhibition of Gros’ paintings and portraits was held in 1955 at Seligmann Gallery in New York, and at the time, the vast majority of Gros’s artwork were only to be found in France, and most of those in Paris. The Laffite portrait photograph was made before 1952, and it shows a worn, damaged painting that is coming loose at the top from its frame backing. The photograph of the painting in the Journal of Jean Laffite shows it in an expensive heavy gilt frame compatible with the early 1800s period. Also, there is no record that John A. Laffite ever tried to sell this painting before it was lost in the fire, so there was no motive to even try to forge it. Additionally, not all Gros paintings are signed, and the ones which are signed often are difficult to make out.

The next question would be where and when was the Laffite portrait made? Laffite is wearing a long coat, so that would indicate cold weather, winter or early spring, or maybe late fall. Gros was living in Paris at the Convent Capuchin in 1804. The closest harbor would have been Le Havre. Laffite was possibly the “Captain Lafitte” of the La Soeur Cherie ship which arrived in New Orleans in April 1804 and stayed there through early August. Gros was busy most of 1804 with painting the 17 by 23 foot mural Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1804, held in September of that year in Paris. Gros was idle between September and Dec. 2, so if Laffite departed for France from New Orleans, he could have been at Le Havre by late September, and thus some time in the Fall of 1804 the portrait was created, probably in the space of a few hours. Gros received great honors for his Napoleon mural at the Salon of 1804, and was very popular for making portraits afterward, so it is quite significant that Laffite was able to commission him to do even the quick study shipboard painting. Even this sketch would have cost a hefty sum at the time, so it indicates Laffite was well off even when he was relatively young, in his early 20s. Also, he must have had some connection to Napoleon in order to even hire Gros. One possible clue is the extremely ornate presentation sword in scabbard that Laffite is holding. The portrait would seem to commemorate the occasion of getting the sword. Did Napoleon present it to Laffite? The answer, like the painting, is lost to history.

One way to verify a piece of art is to look into its provenance, or chronology of the ownership, custody or location of the historical artwork. The primary purpose is to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing its later history, custody and places of storage. A particular value in establishing provenance is in helping authenticate objects. The back of a painting, for instance, may include significant provenance information.

In the case of the Laffite portrait by Gros, since it was lost to fire, and no notes were made about what may or may not have been on the back of the artwork/frame, that particular information is lost, too. It is not known if the portrait sitter was identified on the back. In his book, Stanley Clisby Arthur said the painting was assumed by descendants to be Jean Laffite, as it was among other effects of the corsair preserved by one of his sons (presumably Jules Laffite, who died in St. Louis, Mo., in the 1920s). John A. Laffite, the owner of the painting in the late 1940s- 1950s, claimed to be the great-grandson of Jean Laffite and grandson of Jules Laffite, but genealogical data has not corroborated this. It is unknown exactly when or how John A. Laffite got the Laffite Gros portrait, other paintings, photographs, and Jean Laffite manuscript materials which are featured in Arthur’s Gentleman Rover book and the Vantage Press Journal of Jean Laffite book. All that is known about its ownership history is that he had the Gros portrait from about 1949 until its loss in 1959.

The fact that the Laffite portrait had a Gros signature identical to that on other Gros paintings fits with the timeline presented in the Laffite journal, as Jean says in it he was born in 1782, so would have been 22 years old in 1804 when the portrait was done. As the portrait dates to the right time period, its association with the Laffite journal and miscellaneous copybooks, family photographs, etc. lends more weight to their authenticity as well. They are most likely exactly what they appear to be: holographic manuscript materials written by Jean Laffite and members of his family.

John A. Laffite was a retired railroad employee who knew no French and could not read the Laffite journal, which is mostly in an archaic Creole French mixed with Spanish and a bit of English.

The content of the Laffite journal includes some historical items that were not known until recently, and the signatures in the journal closely match an authentic Jean Laffite signature on the Le Brave ship’s document which has been in federal custody since 1819.

Only the subject of the Gros portrait could have written the Laffite journal, and that person was Jean Laffite.




Was the Journal of Jean Laffite an Original, a Copy or a Forgery?

October 19, 2013 in American History, Ancient History, Caribbean History, general history, History, Louisiana History, Texas History


This photo of the Laffite family copybook on the left and the Journal of Jean Laffite n the right was contributed by Pam Keyes. Both documents were acquired by the Sam Houston Regional Library from John A. Laffite.

What is the difference between a forgery and a copy? How can you tell something is a good copy of an original document and has not been altered? And if it is, indeed, a copy, how do you go about recognizing alterations in the copied document? What is the distinction between a facsimile and just a copy, and is every good forgery a facsimile?

These are questions that come up over and over again in life. Sometimes people rely on physical evidence to determine the age of a document, based on the age of the papyrus it is written on or the ink it is written in. If it’s a clay tablet, carbon dating can help establish its age.

But the age of a copy is not conclusive when it comes to the question of when the original might have been written. Here is one example: we have many, many copies of the Old Testament. But we have no original. That does not mean that there was no original; it may have been written so long ago that it would have been destroyed by now, and the only reason we know about it is because of the copies. It is also possible that the original of some or all of the books was not written down but passed orally from one generation to the next, so that the scribe or scribes who first wrote it down were not the authors of the text. The original might have been a sequence of memorized words that passed from one living brain to the next until someone transcibed it. Once transcribed, this text was copied extensively. The copies were not forgeries. They were not meant to pass for originals. They were merely meant to transmit and preserve the text. Copies are all we have.

The copies were made by scribes, and their job was to write down word for word, letter by letter the same things as the scribe who came before them did. But sometimes a scribe made an error. Sometimes the error is so obvious that any modern reader of Hebrew could point it out and correct it, as if it were a typo. But because the scribes were sworn to copy exactly what was written and not add or subtract a jot, when they spotted an error, they just kept copying it word for word, letter for letter. Over the generations, quite a few errors accumulated.

In addition to all this, since the Old Testament is composed of more than one book, written at more than one time, by more than one author, there are arguments about which books are more authentic or which are just something that got inserted much later and really does not belong there. And also, some things have been intentionally altered by later scribes to go along with changing social mores and religion. Biblical scholars often have to use document-internal evidence to try to ferret out what is what. And the discovery of an older copy, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Kaifeng Scrolls, which may have been less open to more modern tampering, can shed some light on what the original is more likely to have been like.

Having established that authorship and scribeship are separate issues, we should also take into account the difference between the copy of a document’s textual content and a facsimile copy which is meant to represent exactly how the original document looked, even though it is not the original.

In the case of the Old Testament, scholars now understand that when the text was first set down in writing, it could not have been in the Assyrian script in which Hebrew is currently written, which was borrowed from Aramaic and imported into use for Hebrew after the Babylonian exile. Instead, early Hebrew was written in letters more nearly resembling the ancient Phoenician alphabet. But as much as the letters were different in appearance, it was still the same alphabet with a one to one correspondence of symbols to symbols. Hence the text has come down to us letter by letter transcribed, though the letters look entirely different from those in the original. The text matters. What it looks like, considering that there is no original, does not matter. Nobody claims that any of the scrolls that we currently have access to, however ancient, is a facsimile copy of an original.

In all these cases, none of the copies are deemed to be forgeries, just because they are not original. Forgery, for the purposes of this discussion, would only occur if a modern person tried to create an older looking scroll and pass it off as something that it is not. But even in the event of such an attempt, most of the text would still be an accurate copy of another copy. The thing that would make it a forgery would be trying to pass a new copy off as an old copy. It would not change the document’s validity as some sort of copy of a very old document that no one currently living has ever seen the original of.

The Old Testament is not the only book to be subject to this kind of scrutiny or to require this type of analysis. Many a copied document can be found which has no original extant, and all can be subjected to the same type of analysis.

Take what is commonly known as “The Journal of Jean Laffite.” Ostensibly this was an original document presented by John A. Laffite, aka John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John Nafsiger or John Matejka, as the original, unaltered one and only journal of the famed privateer. Some have claimed it to be a forgery, created by the man who presented the document to the public. But even if it is a forgery, what exactly would that mean to those who are interested in the text rather than in the artifact in which the text is embedded?

The Journal as an artifact is a kind of notebook written upon by an ink pen, with a number of old newspaper clippings inserted within, and with some drawings and other extraneous matters. To determine its age would allow us to know if it was written at the same time as the text purports to have been written, but it does not tell us who is the author of the text, nor when the text was composed.

Composing a text and writing it down are two very different things. In some cultures, oral texts are passed on from one generation to another until one day someone writes them down. The person who transcribes these oral texts is not the author. That person is merely a scribe. Authentication of the text, in the event the scribe is suspected of having invented it, involves finding other versions of the same text elsewhere, circumstantial evidence of the existence of the text that long predates the writing and also text internal evidence that indicates through linguistic cues just how old the text really is.

In determining whether the Journal of Jean Laffite text is a hoax devised in the twentieth century or a genuine text from the period and by the person it is ascribed to, here are some of the issues that must be addressed:

  •  The language in which it is written: in this case, a Creole French patois common to the Cuba-Haiti islands sprinkled with some hispanicisms. According to linguist Gene Marshall, who studied and translated it, the writing is in a style common before 1850.
  • The spelling and other idiosyncracies not common to all writers of the dialect.
  • The story it tells in terms of its detail and accuracy.
  • Whether it is similar to other such documents, if any are available
  • The voice of the author or narrator, and whether it conforms to the voice of other available documents known or believed to be written by Jean Laffite in the latter part of his career.
  • The handwriting, but not necessarily as proof of scribeship or authorship, but as possibly pointing to the author or the scribe of the original document, in the event that it is a forgery.

If the text is genuine, but the particular copy which we have available at the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center is not the original or not of concurrent age with the text, then it may well be a financial loss to the institution that purchased it, as its market value would be greatly reduced. But its value as a historical text would in no wise be diminished, if the sequence of words that it enshrines is a genuine and authentic transcription of a text whose author was the privateer Jean Laffite. That is the difference between the value of a forgery and the value of an accurate copy of a text.

It is said that John Andrechyne Laflin, aka John A. Laffite, aka John Nafsiger, did not speak French at all. It is said that those French speakers he had access to were not speakers of that dialect of French used in the Journal. It is known that there was not just one copy of the journal but at least two, as another copy was lent to Madeleine Fabiola Kent, who used it as background information when writing her novel The Corsair. If all these facts are true, and if indeed it were to turn out that John A. Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger did copy the text of the Journal of Jean Laffite in a hand that looks very much like that of the famous privateer’s, then he could not have been its author, though he may have been a forger. If he was a forger, what did he forge? A copy of an original. But the very existence of the copy tends to corroborate the existence of an original.

How could a man who did not read or write French forge a document in a French Creole? One way is if he was indeed an expert artist, by looking at the original not as a text at all, but as a picture that must be copied line by line, angle by angle, correctly, much in the way a photocopier duplicates a text or a photo without understanding what it is copying. To do this, a forger has to be a great savant or a great artist. There is no evidence that John Andrechyne Laflin/Laffite/Nafsiger had that kind of skill or talent. Even if he did, the Journal of Jean Laffite is probably not a facsimile copy of the original journal, because it incorporates genuine newspaper clippings into the notebook in which the journal is copied.

Even if there was no forgery, and the document known as the Journal of Jean Laffite was actually written by the hand of Jean Laffite himself, it is still a copy. There is nothing blotted out. The text flows without interruption. Clearly this is a composed text whose composition took place elsewhere than in this notebook. The copy we have is just a copy. And there were other copies, for it was Jean Laffite’s stated intention to leave a copy for each of his grandchildren, of whom there were several.

When examining the Journal of Jean Laffite for purposes of proving its authenticity or lack of same, it is also good to keep in mind the following basic rules of thumb:

  • Though Jean Laffite may be the author, this does not mean that everything he wrote was true – or for that matter, that anything he wrote was true. People have been known to prevaricate when telling the story of their lives. They have even been known to misremember. Therefore, finding an inaccuracy or historical untruth does not necessarily cast doubt on the authenticity of the text.
  • If the language of the text is very different in one or more sections than in the body of the work, it is more likely that those parts are not part of the original document but were added or embellished upon later.
  • Suspected alterations should be judged by the four corners rule for document interpretation: the internal consistency of the document will determine what parts must be errors or extraneous.

A forgery is an attempt to create a facsimile copy that passes for an original. A forged signature, for instance, to be effective, needs to duplicate an original signature almost identically. A copy that is not a forgery is merely the transmission of a text through duplication. It need not look the same in its typography or handwriting. Sometimes a copy is also a forgery. But being a forgery does not necessarily prove that a copy is a bad copy. In fact, the better the forgery, the more a copy resembles the original.

REFERENCES (For background on Jean Laffite scholarship.) (About Forgery and the artistry it involves) (Gene Marshall Translation and commentary) (For what the Hebrew letters used to look like during the period when the Hebrew Bible was first written down.)

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