Jean-Antoine Houdon, French (active Paris)
21 x 13 1/2 x 10 inches (53.3 x 34.3 x 25.4 cm)
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with a generous grant from The Barra Foundation, Inc., matched by contributions from the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, the Walter E. Stait Fund, the Fiske Kimball Fund, and with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Jack M. Friedland, Hannah L. and J. Welles Henderson, Mr. and Mrs. E. Newbold Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Mark E. Rubenstein, Mr. and Mrs. John J. F. Sherrerd, The Women's Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marguerite and Gerry Lenfest, Leslie A. Miller and Richard B. Worley, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Nyheim, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Fox, Stephanie S. Eglin, an anonymous donor, Mr. and Mrs. William T. Vogt, and with contributions from individual donors to the Fund for Franklin, 1996
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About This Sculpture
Benjamin Franklin was seventy-two years old when the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (jahn ahn-twahn oo-dawn) made this portrait bust of him. At the time, Franklin was a representative of the American colonies, negotiating with the French government for support of the revolt against England. He was already a popular celebrity due to his experiments with electricity; his many inventions, such as the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, and the armonica (a musical instrument); founding Pennsylvania Hospital and the University of Pennsylvania; and publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanac.
With incredible skill, Houdon carved away pieces of the hard, white marble, giving it the realistic appearance of Franklin's skin, hair, and facial features. What parts seem especially real to you? Although the two men may have seen each other at Masonic lodge meetings, Houdon created this amazing sculpture without ever making a mold or taking measurements of Franklin's face, or even asking the statesman to pose for him. The artist captured Franklin's keen intelligence in the highlights and shadows of his eyes, his slightly parted lips, and the subtle tilt of his head.
When Houdon created this piece, Franklin was so famous that many people wanted to own images of him. Houdon made the first version of this sculpture in terracotta, then two in marble, followed by many reproductions in plaster.
This object is included in Learning to Look: 20 Works of Art Across Time and Cultures, a teaching kit developed by the Division of Education and made possible by the Comcast Foundation, The Delphi Project Foundation, and Reliance Standard Life Insurance Company.