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When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in December 1776 as minister for the American colonies, he was already famous for his experiments with electricity and invention of the lightning rod. Charged with the crucial mission of obtaining support for the Revolutionary War, he became a focus of attention for a sympathetic French public, and was quickly elevated to celebrity status. Images of Franklin proliferated, and the leading artists of the day clamored to take his portrait. The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) created perhaps the most familiar and powerful portrayal of the famous Philadelphian and Founding Father.
As part of the Philadelphia consortium's celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), this exhibition focuses on the Museum's marble portrait bust of Franklin, dated 1779. For the first time, the finest versions of this bust in a range of mediums are brought together, offering a rare opportunity to explore the genesis of this work, its place within this moment of Houdon’s career, and its later reworking and influence.
Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portraits of the Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are presented, allowing the visitor to see both the artist's versatility and his skill in creating stunning, lifelike portrayals which transformed the genre of portrait sculpture. Renderings of Franklin by distinguished eighteenth-century artists, including paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Joseph Siffred Duplessis, and sculptures by Claude Dejoux and Jean Jacques Caffieri, are also presented. These works demonstrate the competition among artists for the creation and control of Franklin’s image, and place Houdon’s sculpture in a broader context. The sculptor’s rivalry with the more established Caffieri over their respective busts of the Founding Father is brought to life by letters from the artists, which show their ambitions to be awarded future commissions in the United States, and Houdon's eventual triumph.
The exhibition was conceived by Dean Walker (1948–2005), the late Henry P. McIlhenny Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and is being presented in his honor.
For more information about the Benjamin Franklin anniversary celebration, please visit www.benfranklin300.org.