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Bravery or folly in the details: Finding Francisco Solano Lopez's portrait in the Picture Collection

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While looking through the "Personalities" reference files in the Picture Collection, I happened across this official portrait of a proud, confident man in a tightly-buttoned uniform with waist sash and epaulettes.

Portrait of Francisco Solano Lopez, President of Paraguay (Born 1827-Elected president 1862-Died 1870). From the French magazine L'Illustration, November 29th, 1862.Portrait of Francisco Solano Lopez, President of Paraguay (Born 1827-Elected president 1862-Died 1870). From the French magazine L'Illustration, November 29th, 1862.This sort of uniform, along with the feather-decorated cocked hat that went with it, was very much the norm in its day, but now evokes thoughts of Ruritanian romances and comic operas. The portrait was of Francisco Solano Lopez, the president of the South American republic of Paraguay from 1862 until 1870. He was the dictator of his nation during the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), during which his country's small army fought, and was eventually defeated by, the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in a war which bankrupted his homeland and left most of its male population dead or wounded.

I remembered being fascinated by this war as an undergraduate in college. The bloodiest conflict in South American history ostensibly began as a dispute over navigation rights on the Rio de la Plata, but was also fueled by issues of national pride which contributed greatly to keeping it going for six years. Large battles were fought by men in colorful Victorian-era uniforms using the strategies and tactics of the Napoleonic wars, featuring infantry delivering massed volleys of rifle fire, cavalry charging with drawn sabers, and barrages from horse-drawn artillery pieces. More terrible fighting ensued during the storming of forts and networks of trenches. Naval engagements took place on rivers as ships fought one another while dueling with fortifications on river banks and trying to pass huge chains stretched across the waterways. (Picture Collection has copies of a series of official paintings from the Brazilian navy depicting some of these battles.)

The desperate bravery of the soldiers and sailors combined with the ferocity of the close-quarters fighting to produce horrific casualties, only made worse by the appallingly primitive state of military medicine at the time (think of Civil War doctors sawing off limbs without anesthesia).

Bird's-eye view from a balloon of the defenses of Humaita, the Paraguayan fortress guarding the water approaches to their capital of Asuncion. Here were fortifications and army camps along the banks of the river as well as several gigantic iron chains stretched across it to prevent the passage of enemy ships. Humaita served as Lopez's headquarters in the field as well as a sort of unofficial capital during parts of the war. From the American magazine Harper's Weekly, May 9th, 1868.Bird's-eye view from a balloon of the defenses of Humaita, the Paraguayan fortress guarding the water approaches to their capital of Asuncion. Here were fortifications and army camps along the banks of the river as well as several gigantic iron chains stretched across it to prevent the passage of enemy ships. Humaita served as Lopez's headquarters in the field as well as a sort of unofficial capital during parts of the war. From the American magazine Harper's Weekly, May 9th, 1868.Thousands of families across a continent learned of the death or maiming of their men. After initial victories, Lopez's army was eroded in battle after battle, and his small nation suffered the agonies of pillage, starvation and refugees driven from their homes. Finally Lopez, fleeing into the hinterlands with his government ministers and the remnants of his army, as well as his Irish-born wife Eliza Lynch (whom some blame for inflaming Lopez's ego to the point where he started the war), was killed by a lance carried by a Brazilian cavalryman while trying to cross a river.

Like many dictators, opinions on the legacy of Francisco Solano Lopez are profoundly mixed, largely depending on the nationality of the person passing judgment on him. To historians writing in the nations which fought against Paraguay, he is seen as the quintessential jumped-up, "tin pot" tyrant, leading his doomed country into a battle it could not win for the sake of his own ego. But to many Paraguayans, he was a brave nationalist, standing up for the rights of a small state against the overweening sway of its larger neighbors.

Thinking about Lopez's image, I started wondering about how any great man or woman's persona is demonized or burnished in remembrance with the passing years. Looking at Francisco Solano Lopez staring from the piece of hundred-and-fifty-year-old paper in my hand, I can imagine someone like Robert E. Lee chivalrously seeing himself defending a lost cause, or a Pol Pot driven to reshape his nation to an idea of greatness even if it must be broken or perish outright in the process. I looked away from the picture and, for a brief moment, imagined the person in the engraving standing on a balcony, watching his army march by to the music of a band and the "Viva!"s of a cheering crowd.

There are two recent, rather episodic and impressionistic novels which attempt to give a sense of Lopez, his nation and his war. They're worth reading in parallel, comparing how they describe the same incidents. They are The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck, and The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright.

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