Rysbrack would have carved his portrait of Franklin whilst the American was working in London as agent for the Pennsylvania assembly, first between 1757 and 1762, and again between 1762 and 1775. The sculptor died in 1770, providing a terminus ante quem for the execution of the bust. It also seems likely that Franklin’s likeness was taken during his first sojourn in Britain, as his later stay was disrupted by the lead up to the American Wars of Independence. Franklin was certainly aware of Rysbrack’s work, for, in a letter to his friend Lord Kames, dated 3 January 1760, he describes ‘the busts of famous men’ in Viscount Cobham’s Temple of British Worthies at Stowe (Franklin, Writings, op. cit., vol. iv). Franklin was a wealthy man by the time he arrived in London in 1757, and so would easily have been able to afford a Rysbrack portrait bust. The sculptor was one of Britain’s most famous living artists, renowned for his portrait busts, and so would have been an obvious choice for Franklin, who had already created an international reputation for himself. Franklin may also have been drawn to Rysbrack because the sculptor had executed the tomb monument for his hero, Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey. Rysbrack was also responsible for a portrait bust of Newton (terracotta at Trinity College, Cambridge), which, interestingly, may be the bust that appears in one of the earliest paintings of Franklin, painted by David Martin in 1762 (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; inv. no. 1943.16.1) (the sculpture included by Martin could alternatively be the model by Louis-Francois Roubiliac).
Rysbrack’s Franklin finds numerous comparisons within the sculptor’s wider oeuvre. The relaxed appearance, dressed in indoor clothing, with open shirt and without a wig, would have appealed to the famously informal Franklin. This type of presentation was fashionable throughout the first half of the 18th century, and conveyed the sitter’s status as a cultivated intellect and man of letters. Such associations had been cemented by Lord Burlington, who was presented in this informal mode by Jonathan Richardson in circa 1717-1719 (National Portrait Gallery, London; inv. no. NPG 4818). The present bust can be paralleled with Rysbrack’s marble Alexander Pope in the National Portrait Gallery, London (inv. no. NPG 5854). Pope is also presented with open shirt and unbuttoned jacket, his head turned to one side. Note the analogous way that Pope’s hair falls onto his shoulders, and the subtle lines beneath his eyes. The present bust exhibits superb carving in the wavy locks of hair, which fall around Franklin’s ears. The sitter’s physiognomic idiosyncracies are masterfully delineated, observe the protrouding bottom lip and the pieces of flesh connecting the earlobes with the cheeks.
Michael Rysbrack was one of the greatest British 18th-century sculptors. A Fleming by birth, he arrived in London in 1720. His early tomb sculptures captivated the British public and soon he could count Lord Burlington, Viscount Cobham, and Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, amongst his most loyal patrons. Sarah Churchill’s patronage led him to create one of his most important tombs, that of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace. Rysbrack’s greatest public commission was his equestrian statue of King William III in Queen Square Bristol of 1733-1736. Important works by Rysbrack can be found in many of the world’s leading museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
M. I. Webb, Michael Rysbrack, London, 1954; J. Kenworthy-Browne, 'Portrait Busts by Rysbrack', National Trust Studies 1980 (1979), 67; B. Frankin, Writings, New York, reprinted 1987; Robert Williams and Katharine Eustace. "Rysbrack." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 11 May. 2014.
Katharine Eustace, ‘Rysbrack, (John) Michael (1694–1770)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/24427, accessed 11 May 2014]
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