Summer 2003

Franklin's Many Faces

Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002)
To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders by Bernard Bailyn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

benjamin franklinBrandon Brame Fortune
Associate Curator of Painting and Sculpture

In 1779, now in his second year as a representative of America’s Revolutionary cause in France, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) could not help boasting a little to his daughter of the vogue for his portraits among the French. The production of his likenesses in sculpture, oils, and prints, “of which copies upon copies are spread everywhere,” he reported, “have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon, so that he durst not do any thing that would oblige him to run away, as his phiz would discover him wherever he should venture to show it.”

Franklin’s wry comment on his celebrity was apt. His extraordinary skill in diplomacy had won much-needed French support for the American cause, and along the way he had become the toast of Paris. To some extent, his popularity stemmed from his fame as the scientist who had unlocked the secrets of electricity, but it was owing as well to his own astute sense of the European audience he was playing to. Two recent studies of Franklin by Bernard Bailyn and Edmund Morgan, distinguished historians of the colonial period, bring us closer to his world, and his role within it, including the uses he made of his visual image.

Bernard Bailyn’s book is a series of essays bound by their emphasis on the broader Atlantic context for the Revolutionary generation. Bailyn, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, focuses on the provinciality of this generation, and argues that their marginality “profoundly conditioned their lives and . . . stimulated their imaginations, freed them from instinctive respect for traditional establishments, and encouraged them to create a new political world.” One of his essays investigates Franklin’s creative manipulation of his own “provincial” persona through portraiture. For Bailyn, Franklin’s visual image shifted over time to express Enlightenment aspirations and goals, and Franklin actively participated in shaping it, a process best seen during the years in which he moved “into the Parisian core of the enlightened world.” Bailyn’s essay is not the work of an art historian. He relies on an exhaustively researched 1962 study of Franklin’s portraits by Charles Coleman Sellers for documentation. His insights into Franklin’s self-fashioning are instead the product of a career-long engagement with the history of the Revolutionary period and, as such, provide a fascinating view of Franklin’s portraits—from the man of science depicted during his London years by Mason Chamberlin and David Martin, to the philosophe in plain clothes and fur hat made famous by Charles Nicolas Cochin and Jean-Baptiste Nini, and the busts made by Jean- Jacques Caffieri and Jean-Antoine Houdon. Bailyn saves his greatest accolades for the portrait painted by Joseph Siffred Duplessis in 1778, a painting that “radiates experience, wisdom, patience, tolerance, and a world-weariness beyond all cleverness and guile.” The version of the portrait by Duplessis owned today by the National Portrait Gallery belonged during Franklin’s lifetime to one of his favorite companions in France, Madame Brillon de Jouy (Anne-Louise d’Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy). Edmund Morgan, who has published a superb short biography of Franklin, describes their relationship in sprightly, insightful prose. They drank tea, played chess, and exchanged witty and affectionate conversation that was continued through letters, “each claiming an unsurpassable love for the other.” This flirtatious relationship, not quite passionate, but not exactly platonic, was one of many that Franklin sustained in the salons of Paris. As Morgan notes, “They certainly made life in France worth living in a way that nothing else had quite equaled.”

In approximately three hundred pages of easy-to-read type, with well-chosen illustrations, Morgan includes enough of Franklin’s biography and accomplishments to enable us to begin to understand the complexities of the man. As he notes, “it is meant only to say enough about the man to show that he is worth the trouble.” Morgan, professor emeritus of history at Yale University, is one of the foremost historians of colonial American history and culture. He is also chairman of the advisory board of the Franklin Papers project. The introduction that he was asked to write for a new CD-ROM version of the Franklin letters grew into this book. He notes in the preface: “Franklin can reach us in writing that speaks with a clarity given to few in any language at any time, and writing was his favored mode of communication. We can read his mail.” By making judicious use of this primary material, Morgan reveals Franklin’s charisma, his insatiable curiosity, and his propensity for public service—to his Philadelphia community, to colonial governments, and to the emerging United States.

Images:  Benjamin Franklin, cast after Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1778; Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, c. 1785, gift of the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Babtiste Nimi, 1777

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