Jean-Baptise Greuze, an artist whose greatest contemporary fame was for his moralizing genre subjects, has gained a lasting place in art history as a superior portraitist, especially of male subjects. Although he worked most often in oils, like many of his contemporaries in France he also worked in pastel, a very popular medium especially favored for portraits. Interestingly, this pastel of Benjamin Franklin was done in careful preparation for an oil portrait.
The commission came from Elie de Beaumont in March 1777, soon after Franklin’s arrival in France as Commissioner Plenipotentiary to the Court of France, representing the American Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Arriving in France in December 1776, Franklin established himself in a large, handsome house in the village of Passy (now the elegant Parisian arrondissement of the same name) by January 7, 1777. Franklin was an ornament of the Enlightenment, a cosmopolitan man whose reputation as a philosopher and man of letters was perhaps higher in Europe than at home.
Though he does not show Franklin’s well-known “simplicity of dress,” Greuze has given us a convincing image of the great man, then seventy-one. He has chosen to emphasize the urbanity and benevolence of the sitter over the practical, forceful side of his nature. His portrait is a persuasive mixture of realism and idealism, formality and humanity. This superlative image of the philosopher-statesman fixes Franklin in France firmly in the mind’s eye.
The sable-trimmed blue cloak over a white satin waistcoat would have appealed to Greuze, whose ability to render textures was justly admired, but he also knew how it pointed up the auburn-flecked gray hair of the sitter. Franklin had abandoned the peruke and was quite aware of the democratic distinction this lent him.
Completing the oil portrait by June 30, 1777, Greuze retained the pastel for himself. After the French Revolution, the artist fell from favor and ultimately into destitution and isolation. At some point, he sold the portrait to the young, wealthy Russian expatriate Nicolas Nikitich Demidov, who was living in the same house he was. Demidov subsequently settled in Italy.
The admiration for Benjamin Franklin felt by Europeans, especially the French, among whom he lived so many years, was enhanced by the fact that after a full life he spent his old age in the service of his country and its ideals. The eloquent Count Mirabeau, in announcing Franklin’s death in 1790 to the French Assembly, eulogized him as a sage who “holds an elevated rank among the human species. He was one of the greatest men that ever have served the cause of philosophy and of liberty.”1Sellers 1963, xxi.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.