Benjamin Franklin went to Paris in 1776 as American envoy to arrange an alliance between France and the United States. He remained there as American minister until 1785, when he returned, accompanied on the crossing by Jean-Antoine Houdon who was on his way to Mount Vernon to model the likeness of George Washington.1For a further discussion of Houdon, see Arnason; Chinard; Giacometti; and Hart and Biddle. While in Paris, Franklin had become a popular figure as a respected man of the Enlightenment and a symbol of the American—that newcomer on the European political scene. Houdon modeled his image of Franklin in his Paris studio in 1778. The preceding year, Franklin had posed for Jean-Jacques Caffieri (1725–1792), the leading French portrait sculptor of the day. Caffieri’s Franklin may be the more physiologically accurate because his subject posed for him, but it is generally agreed that Houdon’s bust is the better characterization, for it captures the wisdom and wit for which Franklin was famous.2The standard study on images of Franklin is Sellers 1962; see esp. 304–16. Comparison of Houdon’s bust with portraits of Franklin by Caffieri and other sculptors may be made with the plates in this volume. If Caffieri’s version presents a stern, even dour expression, Houdon’s has a twinkle in the glance, laugh lines at the corners of the eyes, and slightly parted lips, which give a lively animation to the face. Franklin was celebrated for his plainness among the dandies of the French court at the time, and his simple clothes, no less than his homespun humor, were calculated parts of the role he played while in France.3Conversation in 1989 by Steven A. Tatti, New York, revealed several damaged areas; the entire bust had been overpainted with terracotta-colored paint; plaster was used to fill losses in the base; the seal had been reset, partially on the plaster fills; the socle had been replaced. Thus, Houdon shows him in plain contemporary dress.
Houdon’s bust of 1778 was very popular. Houdon proudly displayed it in his studio to the many visitors who thronged to see it, alongside his recently modeled busts of Rousseau and Voltaire. In 1779, he exhibited it at the annual Paris Salon. The original terracotta of the Franklin, a rather intimate type, is owned by the Louvre in Paris.4A marble version of the bust is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1780, Houdon created a larger, more formal version, using the small terracotta as his model for the head. In this second type, the chest is bare and the shoulders are enveloped in a huge drapery, in the manner of a noble, senatorial image à l’antique. A plaster version of this type is owned by the Boston Athenaeum and a marble version is in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
The bust owned by the Department of State was made from the original mold in 1778. When it was being considered for purchase by the Collection, H.H. Arnason, reported that, in his opinion, “the cast shows extensive chasing of the surface which was undoubtedly done by Houdon.”5Letter, H. H. Arnason to Clement E. Conger, February 13, 1963, New York, New York, Curatorial Files, Diplomatic Reception Rooms. Arnason, associated for many years with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, wrote several books on sculptors and was fully familiar with the techniques of the art, including the finishing of a bust once it was removed from the mold. An examination of the bust in 1989 by Russell E. Burke III, Altman Burke Fine Art Inc., New York, upheld Arnason’s opinion.
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.