Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the immensely influential American statesman and scientist whose own history is inextricably linked with his adoptive hometown of Philadelphia, will be the subject of Portraits of Franklin, an exhibition on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February 15 through April 20, 1997. Portraits of Franklin will honor the founding father and celebrate the Museum's recent acquisition of Jean-Antoine Houdon's marble bust of Benjamin Franklin (1779). Included will be some 20 images focusing on the response of other French and several English artists to Franklin when he lived abroad.
Important loans include a 1779 portrait by Rosalie Filleul (1752-1794), the Frenchwoman who was a successful painter and a friend of Franklin's, lent by Ambassador and Mrs. Walter H. Annenberg. On view near the Houdon bust will be the 1778 portrait--borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art--by Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725-1802), a painting commissioned by the active partisan of the American cause and Franklin's host in Paris, Le Ray de Chaumont. Selections from the Museum's permanent collection will include printed portraits from the substantial collection formed by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and given to the Museum in 1946. The exhibition will also feature the Museum's celebrated little painting of Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (c. 1816) by Benjamin West as well as a number of prints after designs by Louis de Carmontelle (1717-1806) and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806).
The exhibition surveys the various forms of Franklin portraits produced in France during his lifetime, including examples of pieces he owned or gave as presents, with brief texts that explain the role of the objects, ranging from tokens of friendship to political propaganda. As Dean Walker, the Museum's Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, explains, "Although the French images present America as victorious, most of the works were executed while the American Revolution was still being fought and the outcome far from certain."
Franklin, who has been portrayed in art more than any other founding father after George Washington, was born in Boston and moved to Philadelphia in 1723 at the age of 17. Franklin found employment as a printer, and eventually launched the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack. He retired from publishing in 1748 and pursued scientific and literary activities. Long involved in public affairs, Franklin became a premier proponent of the American Revolution, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and a participant in the writing of the Constitution. His imprimatur is evident throughout Philadelphia, and the city's institutions which he helped to found--including the University of Pennsylvania, the Franklin Institute, the Philosophical Society, and the Free Library--are still thriving.
From 1776 to 1785, Franklin served as minister from the United States to France, where his popularity inspired a vogue for his likenesses in paintings, sculptures, prints and decorative objects. Houdon's 1779 bust of Benjamin Franklin, which was completed during Franklin's sojourn in France, was acquired for the Museum at auction at Sotheby's, New York, on December 5, 1996. The bust presents Franklin as a wise statesman in his mid-seventies with a powerful presence and subtle expression. It is the finest version of the Houdon image that long ago achieved the status of a national icon for the United States, influencing countless other portraits of Franklin and shaping his image in the popular mind. The acquisition of Houdon's Benjamin Franklin was made possible through a major grant from The Barra Foundation, Inc., and the use of endowed purchase funds at the Museum including the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, funds bequeathed by Walter E. Stait, and the Fiske Kimball Fund. Generous contributions from individual donors to the Museum's newly created Fund for Franklin are being sought to meet the balance remaining on the acquisition.
Portraits of Franklin has been organized by Dean Walker, Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and will be on view in rooms 284 and 290 in the Galleries of European Art, 1500-1850, on the Museum's second floor.