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Franklin in France

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, 1777
Augustin de Saint-Aubin, French
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In the adjoining gallery, images of Franklin by some of the greatest artists of the eighteenth-century are presented. These works of art shed light on Franklin’s fame, and put Houdon’s portrait into its historical and artistic context.

When he arrived in France, Franklin shunned the elaborate costume normally worn by statesmen and ambassadors, preferring instead simple clothing, of the type generally worn by writers and intellectuals, by which the French were fascinated. Images of Franklin proliferated—and although he grew tired of posing for artists, he was aware of the propaganda value this publicity held in the American fight for independence. Such was his popularity that, in a 1779 letter sent to his daughter, Franklin acknowledged that his face had become “as well known as that of the moon.”

The earliest images to appear were prints, such as the portrait by Augustin de Saint Aubin. These images were so topical that they were announced and discussed in French newspapers. The subject matter varied from simple portrayals to complex allegories celebrating Franklin’s genius. Other early portraits include a painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a unique, hand-worked plaster bust by the sculptor Claude Dejoux and a bust by Jean-Jacques Caffieri, all created in 1777. Caffieri’s bust was a very accurate rendering of Franklin’s features, as the artist had the advantage of posing sessions—Franklin himself purchased plaster reproductions from the artist. Houdon’s later bust can be seen as a challenge to this work, and the fierce rivalry between the artists is explored in this exhibition.

Also in this gallery is a painting of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, a defining image that attracted even more attention than Houdon's portrait at the Salon of 1779, and an example of the print shown by Louis Jacques Cathelin that same year. Cathelin’s print was engraved after a painting by Anne-Rosalie Filleul, which is also presented. In addition, this area of the exhibition examines Houdon’s reworking and replication of his Franklin bust, demonstrating the enduring appeal of this captivating portrait.


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