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Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Mason Chamberlin, British, 1727 - 1787

Made in England, Europe


Oil on canvas

50 3/8 × 40 3/4 inches (128 × 103.5 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wharton Sinkler, 1956

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Additional information:
  • PublicationBritish Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Between 1757 and 1762 (and again from 1764 to 1775) Benjamin Franklin was in England) acting as agent for the interests of the Pennsylvania Assembly, which was seeking the right to tax proprietary estates (that is, to force the Penn family to pay taxes). At this time he became the friend of Robertson, Hume, Garrick, and the painter Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788).

    This portrait of Franklin was commissioned by his friend and neighbor in London (at 7 Craven Street, Strand) Philip Ludwell III (1716-1767), a Virginia planter and Indian negotiator who had moved to London in 1760.1 In a letter written from Philadelphia on February 24, 1764, to Jonathan Williams in Boston, Franklin described the origins of the commission: "Just before I left London [i.e., in late July or early August 1762], a Gentleman requested I would sit for a Picture to be drawn of me for him by a Painter of his choosing. I did so, and the Pourtrait was reckon’d a very fine one. Since I came away, the Painter has had a Print done from it, of which he has sent a Parcel here for Sale. I have taken a Dozen of them to send to Boston and it being the only way in which I am now likely ever to visit my Friends there, I hope a long Visit in this Shape will not be disagreeable to them."2 Franklin was so well pleased with his portrait by Chamberlin that he ordered a replica for his son William Franklin and continued for the next decade to distribute prints of the Fisher mezzotint to his friends.3

    Franklin's later career as a diplomat and patriot has made his name familiar to every American schoolchild. However, the author and signer of the Declaration of Independence has perhaps overshadowed the Franklin whose earlier achievements as printer, philosopher, scientist, and inventor had little to do with politics; it takes some effort to see and describe the man as he was when Ludwell knew him and Chamberlin portrayed him in 1762.

    Born in Boston in 1706, apprenticed to his brother James, a printer, from 1718 to 1723, Franklin left Boston in the latter year for Philadelphia, and then, in 1724, for London. His mature career began on his return to Philadelphia in 1726 to set up as a printer. There he lived until his appointment to London in 1757. A partial list of his achievements during these thirty-one years in Philadelphia is breathtaking: not only was he a printer of books and newspapers, the editor of Poor Richard’s Almanack, and founder of the Library Company (1731), the American Philosophical Society (1743), the Pennsylvania Hospital (1751-55), and the academy that would later become the University of Pennsylvania (1751), but also to this period belong his most famous inventions, the Philadelphia fireplace and the lightning rod. Above all else, Franklin's researches into the nature of electricity between 1746 and 1753 made him by the early 1750s one of the most distinguished scientists in America or Europe, leading to honorary degrees in America from Harvard and Yale in 1753, and in Great Britain to membership in the Society of Arts in 1755, the Royal Society in 1756, honors at Edinburgh University and St. Andrews in 1759, and finally, in the year Chamberlin's portrait was painted, to an honorary degree from Oxford.

    The man Chamberlin portrayed was, therefore, more of a Priestley than a Burke: one of the leading scientists in England; a distinguished Fellow of the Royal Society; and a man whose work in the field of electricity represents, even today, his most "permanent and lasting contribution to scientific thought."4 From the English point of view, his political career had not yet begun.

    Franklin had observed his first electrical demonstration in Boston in 1746; the next seven years he spent retired from business conducting research into the phenomenon and communicating his findings to Peter Collinson, the London agent for the Library Company of Philadelphia. Because Collinson read Franklin's letters to the members of the Royal Society, Franklin's work immediately became known in England.5 When he began his work, electricity was the least studied of the physical sciences. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, lightning was thought to be fire from heaven, and although by the mid-eighteenth century certain of Franklin's contemporaries had concluded that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, no one had proved it by experiment.6

    This is what Franklin did, first by the invention of the lightning rod and second (though more famously) by his experiment with the kite in 1752.7 Once he had proved that lightning and electricity were identical, he was able to contribute fundamentally to the structure of electrical theory by premising that every body contains a normal quantity of single electrical fluid, which when electrified by friction or contact with an electrical body, gains or loses some of its normal quantity, thus becoming charged either positively or negatively. From here it was but a step to discover that positively charged bodies attract negative, but that positive repels positive and negative repels negative: in short, he explained the entire phenomenon of attraction and repulsion. To confirm the electrical nature of lightning and then discover the electrification of clouds were remarkable contributions to science, but Franklin also invented the lightning rod, a very practical application of the results of abstract research.8 It is stunning to learn from his biographer Carl Van Doren that Franklin was the first man to use the following terms in print in English: armature, battery, charged, condense, conductor, discharge, electrical fire, electrical shock, electrician, electrified, Leyden bottle, negative, and positive.9 Van Doren summed up Franklin's work in these words: "He had made one of the most dramatic guesses in the history of science, and he had verified his guess with a boy's plaything. He had applied his knowledge to making men's houses, barns, ships safe from an incalculable danger. With what seemed the simplest key he had unlocked one of the darkest and most terrifying doors in the unknown universe. Here was another hero of the human race, even as against the terrifying gods. Franklin, Kant said, was a new Prometheus who had stolen fire from heaven."10

    Chamberlin began this portrait almost ten years after Franklin's conclusions about the nature of lightning and description of the lightning rod were first published in England by Edward Cave in a pamphlet of April 1711. When we compare it to Benjamin West's (1738-1820) portrait of Franklin conducting the experiment with a kite, in which the scientist is shown in the robe of a Promethean hero (Benjamin West {1738-1820} Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, c. 1816-17, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 13 1/4, x 10" {33.5 x 25.5 cm.}, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Wharton Sinkler), the Chamberlin of 1762 seems a conventional, straightforward affair. Franklin is shown in the stock pose for portraying a man of letters in English art--seated at his desk but looking up from the pen and paper in his hands as though momentarily interrupted. In other portraits the interruption might be the subject's spouse, or even perhaps the muse of inspiration fluttering in. In Franklin's case his muse is shown to be his scientific instruments reacting to the effects of an electrical storm, glimpsed through the window.

    Franklin himself was a figure, in Seller's apt phrase, "impressive in his lack of impressiveness."11 Chamberlin gives us a plain man, with a mole on his left check, simply dressed, wearing a powdered wig (as he did until 1775), no spectacles (these did not appear until after 1776), and lights the portrait in the most ordinary, school-of-Thomas-Hudson, way. Some passages, particularly in the painting of the right hand and ruffles, the realistic and careful observation of the world, or the objects almost painfully described by the thin paint remind one of Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) about this date; but how one wishes, when Chamberlin comes to rendering the scientific instruments and the electrical storm in the background, that Wright had been in London in 1762 and available to paint Franklin's portrait.

    Franklin is shown at work, making notes on some of his experiments. Three of these experiments are identifiable.

    In a letter to Collinson written in September 1753, Franklin described the apparatus depicted in the upper left-hand corner. "In September 1752, I erected an iron rod to draw the lightning down into my house, in order to make some experiments on it, with two bells to give notice when the rod should be electrify'd: A contrivance obvious to every electrician."12 The rods, which seem to be fastened to the floor and ceiling, must be connected to an external lightning rod somewhere out of our sight, and the clapper hanging between the bells will ring because it is excited by the same electrical charge as the bells, so that it will be repelled by each in turn. These bells had been described by Franklin even before he installed them in his own house. In August 1752 The Gentleman’s Magazine recommended that lightning rods be used by ''all gentlemen who take the...pains of keeping meteorological journals....It is easy to annex two little bells to the wire of the [lightning rod] with a clapper between, which without further trouble will give notice when electrified."13 Apparently before leaving Philadelphia for London Franklin forgot to disconnect the apparatus, and his wife Deborah wrote to him to complain that the mysterious ringings frightened her. Franklin replied from London on June 10, 1758: "If the ringing of the Bells frightens you, tie a Piece of Wire from one Bell to the other, and that will conduct the lightning without ringing or snapping, but silently. Tho' I think it best the Bells should be at Liberty to ring, that you may know when the Wire is electrified, and, if you are afraid, may keep at a Distance.”14

    The second experiment visible in Chamberlin's portrait takes place also in the upper left, slightly in front and to the right of the electrical bells. This was the electrification of two cork balls either positively or negatively so that they could be seen to repel each other. In April 1751, the same month and year that Franklin's discoveries were published in England, he and an unemployed Baptist minister named Ebenezer Kinnersley (1711-1778) drew up a series of lectures to demonstrate his discoveries. These were published in Philadelphia in 1752. One of the experiments to demonstrate that two electrically charged bodies repel each other reads:
    Suspend...two Cork Balls from silk Threads, & electrify them; & they will immediately separate & fly asunder to a great Distance. When there is more of the Electric Matter thrown on a Piece of common Matter than it can receive within its Substance; the rest forms an Atmosphere round it; which Atmosphere repels a like Atmosphere round another Body; so that the Bodies themselves seem to repel each other, as may be seen in those Cork Balls which being electrified, or having an electric Atmosphere given to each of them, they are thereby kept at a Distance, & cannot be brought to touch without Violence.15

    The final experiment is perhaps the least obviously recognizable as an experiment. At first glance, what is happening outside the window seems perfectly straightforward: in the distance a storm is raging and lightning is destroying buildings whose owners have been so imprudent as to forgo the use of Franklin's lightning rod. The closest building, which stands intact, is of course equipped with just the kind of rod recommended by Franklin (the top pointed, not rounded). It is appropriate that the author of Poor Richard should include a cautionary lesson among the attributes illustrating his accomplishments as a scientist. But as Louise Todd Ambler pointed out in 1975, the background deserves a second look. Except in fanciful depictions of the destruction of Nineveh, lightning does not utterly level whole buildings. Indeed, the longer we look at the cityscape in Chamberlin's portrait, the clearer it becomes that the buildings are not meant to be taken for actual structures; they are, in fact, the toy models constructed under Franklin's direction to enable a lecturer to demonstrate the purpose and efficacy of the lighning rod. Several of these models still exist, preserved at Harvard University. [One] is a profile of a house with a lightning rod running up its chimney, fixed onto a horizontal board. What happens during a lecture is this: the experimenter (Kinnersley or Franklin himself) shows that if he administers an electrical charge to the top of the lightning rod and does nothing to interrupt the passage of the charge to the ground, the house remains unharmed. But the profile of the house also contains at its center a small square of wood, within which is a wire that enables the experimenter to interrupt the charge of electricity before it has reached the ground. If he does this, the square of wood is dramatically and violently blown out of its place, thus showing what happens to buildings not protected by lightning rods. At the pointed tip of the rod is a thread on which a little ball can be screwed. The experimenter can perform the experiment with the pointed rod, as recommended by Franklin, and then with a rod ending in a ball, as advocated by his rival electrician Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788) and endorsed by George III. Naturally, the second time around the experiment ends in the destruction of the house.16 In the background of the Chamberlin portrait, a steeple with a rounded finial at its top is broken in two by a stroke of lightning, thus illustrating Franklin's point, as demonstrated by another toy model at Harvard, the steeple with lightning rod.17

    The building collapsing into several pieces in the background of the Chamberlin portrait is probably meant to represent Franklin's "Thunder House”. This provided the most dramatic demonstration of the lecture. The "Thunder House" was a three-dimensional model of a house, made of mahogany, about ten inches high, with a separate roof and each of its four walls hinged. In the experiment, a small charge of dynamite is placed within the house, and the demonstration begins. First we are shown what happens when the house protected by lightning rods is struck by lightning (again, the experimenter administering an electrical charge). All is well. Next, the same charge is administered when the house is not protected, and the powder explodes, the house collapses, and the audience presumably runs out to buy lightning rods.18

    Richard Dorment, from British Painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: From the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Century (1986), pp.38-44.

    1. For Ludwell see Archibald B. Shepperson, John Paradise and Lucy Ludwell (Richmond, 1942), pp. 18-33; Leonard W. Labaree and William B.Willcox, eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 24 vols. New Haven and London, 1959-84, vol. 10, p. 107n, vol. 6, p. 532n.
    2. Labaree and Willcox, eds., 1959-84, vol. II, p. 89.
    3. Ibid., vol. 10, p. xv; see engraving 1.
    4. I. Bernard Cohen, ed., Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments: A New Edition of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity (Cambridge, Mass., 1941), p. xi.
    5. Franklin's first letter to Collinson is dated July 11, 1747. By January 1748 his work was being discussed by Sir William Watson at the Royal Society, and in 1750 articles on his experiments began to appear in England in The Gentleman’s Magazine. For the history of the publication of these letters as a book, Observations on Electricity (London, 1751 ), see Cohen, ed. (see note 4), pp. 138ff.
    6. John Freke in England (1746), Jean Antoine Nollet in France (1748), and Johann Winkler in Germany.
    7. The kite experiment was spectacular, but in Cohen's words, "an unnecessary step, one of little importance" (Cohen, ed., see note 4, pp. 76-7-7).
    8. Ibid., pp. 69-70.
    9. Carl Van Doren. Benjamin Franklin. New York and London, 1938, p. 173.
    10. Ibid., p. 171.
    11. Charles Coleman Sellers. Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven and London, 1962, p. 1, see also pp. 2-3.
    12. Cohen, ed. (see note 4), p. 268.
    13. The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 22 (1752), p. 383.
    14. Labaree and Willcox, eds., 1959-8, vol.5, pp. 69-71, vol. 8, p. 94.
    15. Ebenezer Kinnersley, A Course of Experiments on the Newly Discovered Electrical Fire (Philadelphia, 1752). See Cohen (see note 4), p. 416.
    16. I. Bernard Cohen, Some Early Tools of American Science: An Account of the Early Scientific Instruments and Mineralogical and Biological Collections in Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), p. 161, fig. 17 following p. 154. See also David P Wheatland, The Apparatus of Science at Harvard 1765--1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), pp. 146--48.
    17. Cohen (see note 16), p. 161, fig. 18 following p. 154.
    18. Ibid., p. 162, fig. 19 following p. 154.

    C. W. Bower, The History of the Centennial-Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington (New York, 1902), p. 457, repro. opp. p. 444; Times (London), December 19, 1912, p. 9; Brad Stephens, The Pictorial Life of Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1923), unpaginated; John Clyde Oswald, Benjamin Franklin in Oil and Bronze (New York, 1926), pp. 16-18, repro. p. 17 William T. Whitley, Artists and Their Friends in England, 1700-1799. 2 vols. London and Boston, 1928, vol. 2, p. 83; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin and His Circle, May-September 1936, p. 14 (mezzotint by Fisher) (by R.T.H. Halsey, Joseph Downs, and Marshall Davidson); Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin. New York and London ,1938, pp. 401-2, 431; Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., vol. 43, pt. I (March 1953), repro. opp. p. 1 (mezzotint by C. Turner); Labaree and Willcox, eds., 1959-84, vol. II, p. 89, vol. 10, pp. xv, 107n., repro. as frontispiece (mezzotint by Fisher); Charles Coleman Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven and London, 1962, pp. 57-60, 218-29, pl. p. 4; Ruth Davidson, “Museum Accessions," Antiques, vol. 100, no.5 (November 1971), pp. 682-83, repro. p. 682; Robert D. Crompton, "Franklin's House Off High Street in Philadelphia," Antiques, vol. 102, no.4 (October 1972), p. 682 fig. 6 (as oil on paper mounted on panel); Sarah B. Sherrill, "Current and Coming," Antiques, vol. 106, no. 1 (July 1974), p. 25, repro. p. 24 (as oil on paper on panel); Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective, April-September 1975, p. 72, no. 36 (mezzotint by fisher repro. frontispiece) (catalogue by Louise Todd Ambler).

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