In 1778, Houdon produced his first portrait bust of Franklin, the terracotta that is now preserved in the Louvre. Subsequently, two marbles were carved, one executed in 1778, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one dated 1779, sold in these rooms in 1998 to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The precision of the expression in Houdon’s 1778 portrait, upon which the present plaster depends, personifies Franklin’s humor and wisdom. Both of Houdon’s busts of Franklin portray him in contemporary dress, lacking shoulders and with a rounded truncation.
Franklin became a celebrity upon his arrival in Paris and his status in French society grew with the unveiling of new portraits of him by painters and sculptors such as Greuze, Boilly, Caffieri and Duplessis. But it was Houdon’s portrait that hastened the great demand for Franklin’s image.
The present portrait dated 1778 exists in other plaster versions including one in the Schlossmuseum, Gotha; the Musée Fabre, Montpelier; the American Society of Arts and Sciences, Boston on loan to the Boston Athenaeum and four other plasters that were mentioned by William Temple Franklin in a letter of April 3, 1785 but are untraced (Poulet, op.cit., p. 249).
Houdon was received as a member of the Académie royale 1777. He found patrons in courts all over Europe including Germany, Russia, Poland and Sweden and established his reputation as the pre-eminent portrait sculptor of his time in Europe. Houdon had modelled the likenesses of other men of letters, European nobility of the Enlightenment and the most prominent Americans, culminating in the full-length statue of George Washington in Richmond, Virginia.
Houdon’s technical achievements, sense of spontaneity and psychological realism paired with an elegance and dignity of character, are most evident in the present bust. This portrait has become so much of the iconography of America and its sense of immediacy, highlighted by the extremely naturalistic rendering of the eyes and the parted lips, as if Franklin were in mid-sentence, bring this cherished statesman to life.
Anne L. Poulet and Guillhem Scherf, Jean-Antoine Houdon, Sculptor of the Enlightenment, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2003, no. 43, pp. 246-250;
Jack Hinton, Melissa Meighan and Andrew Lins, Encountering Genius. Houdon's Portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2011
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