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de Trobriand, Philippe Regis
b. June 4, 1816; d. July 15, 1897
Discipline: Drawing/Illustration, Painting

Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand was born on June 4, 1816 in a chateau outside Tours, France, a small city located at the junction of the Cher and Loire rivers. The son of a general (named Joseph) and a descendant in a centuries-long lineage of French army and navy commanders, de Trobriand was more or less destined to join the military. In 1822, at the age of 6, he moved to Toulouse – where his father was assigned the command of a garrison – and was made a royal page. In 1825, he entered the College of Saint-Louis in Paris. In 1830, any French military aspirations he may have had (or were expected of him) were quashed by a popular uprising that dethroned King Charles X, to whose dynasty de Trobriand’s father had sworn allegiance. With military advancement reserved for those who were allied with the new king, Louis-Philippe, de Trobriand instead took, and passed, his baccalaureate exams at the College of Tours in 1834 and completed law studies at the University of Poiters (now Rennes) in 1837. In 1832, his mother Rosine Hachin de Courbeville died, followed by his father in 1840.

In 1841, de Trobriand left France for New York City, where he took work at the city’s French language newspaper Courrier des Etats-Unis and published a novel, The Rebel. (This was his second published novel. The first, entitled The Gentlemen of the West, was published in Paris.) In 1843, he returned to Paris and married Mary Mason Jones, the American daughter of a wealthy banker named Isaac Jones and with whom he became acquainted while in New York. They eventually settled in Venice, where de Trobriand privately studied painting and worked on, but never completed, a written history of the city. In 1847, they returned to the New York at the request of Mary’s father and de Trobriand worked as a freelance journalist and wrote opera reviews for a local newspaper.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he joined the Gardes Lafayette – a Franco-American unit with the New York militia – as a colonel. During the following four years, de Trobriand participated in some of the most significant – and bloodiest – events of the entire war. He commanded troops at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg; and was present during General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

After the war, de Trobriand, by this time a major general in the army and a United States citizen, returned to Paris and wrote Quatre ans a l’armee du Potomac (Four Years with the Army of the Potomac), a two-volume set published in 1867.

Soon after, he was recalled to the United States and on August 19, 1867, was posted as commander at Fort Stevenson near present day Garrison, North Dakota. It was here that he produced a series of painted North Dakota landscapes and portraits of American Indians that married his observational abilities, which he had honed as a writer and military officer, and his drawing skills, which were part of the standard skill set among officers at the time. Having received little to no formal training as an painter, he proved to be something of a natural with talent near par of other artists who had spent time in the area: George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, John Audubon, and others. His skilled use of lifelike detail and natural scale and perspective created an authentic recreation of his subjects and the sparse, open North Dakota landscape of his time. Like the paintings of Bodmer and others, de Trobriand’s work serves as a historical document of the life and landscape of a bygone era as much as it serves as skillful artistic renderings.

He left Fort Stevenson on May 10, 1869 to take command of Fort Shaw in Montana (near present-day Great Falls) and went on to command posts in Utah, Wyoming, and New Orleans, where he retired in 1879. He spent his remaining summers in France and Bayport, Long Island in New York, where he died on July 15, 1897. He was survived by his wife Mary and their two daughters Marie-Caroline and Beatrice. He is buried in the cemetery of Saint Anne in Sayville, Long Island.

Reproductions of twenty-seven of his North Dakota pieces are on permanent display at the new de Trobriand Art Gallery at the Fort Stevenson Guardhouse near Garrison, North Dakota. Additionally, four paintings and numerous sketches by de Trobriand remain in the collection of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and several oil paintings are a part of its main exhibit at the Heritage Center in Bismarck.

- Ben Nemenoff

Bibliography:

de Trobriand, Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern. Military Life in Dakota: The Journal of Philippe Regis de Trobriand. Edited and Translated by Lucille M. Kane. St. Paul: Alvord Memorial Commission, 1951.

Krebs, Albert. “Regis de Trobriand et le Courrier des Etats-Unis.” Translated by Bob Redman. French Journal of New York, October-December 1971.

“Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand.” About Famous People. April 29, 2004. <http://www.aboutfamouspeople.com>.

Rogers, Ken. “Artist with a Commanding View.” Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri, Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.

*Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#12470, #12472, and #12474).

Painting of a winter scene
Painting of the river
Painting of landscapes
 
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