Benjamin Franklin Bust by Houdon (Sculpture)

Copy of Bust of Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.Artist/Maker: Unknown copy from Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)[1]

Created: 1778

Origin/Purchase: France

Materials: plaster

Dimensions: 23 x 13 x 15 in.

Location: Tea Room

Provenance (Copy): Copy made from original at the Boston Athenaeum

Accession Number: 1923-9

Historical Notes: Jefferson served with Franklin, the senior statesman of the Continental Congress, in Philadelphia in 1775, calling him "the greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived."[2] He was a printer, author, inventor, statesman, scientist, and diplomat, and these accomplishments could not have failed to impress Jefferson.

Franklin's popularity in France increased French support for American independence. His image was well known and appeared in engravings and even in jewelry. Later, when Jefferson succeeded Franklin as minister to France in 1784, he said:

The succession to Doctor Franklin, at the court of France, was an excellent school of humility. On being presented to any one as the minister of America, the commonplace question used in such cases was "c'est vous, Monsieur, que remplace le Docteur Franklin"? It is you, sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?' I generally answered, 'no one can replace him, sir; I am only his successor."[3]

This portrait of Franklin is one of two completed by Houdon. Franklin first sat for Houdon in 1778 and again in 1782, or later.[4] In the earlier portrait Franklin is clothed in simple Quaker dress; in the later work Franklin is classically draped. The earlier bust, whose size and treatment matches the other Houdon busts acquired by Jefferson, is probably the one that Jefferson selected for Monticello.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 220.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Smith, August 22 1798, in Ford, 8:443.
  3. Jefferson to Reverend William Smith, February 1791, in Ibid, 6:208.
  4. For a full discussion see Jean Montague Messengale, "A Franklin by Houdon Rediscovered," Marsyas 12(1964/1965): 1-15.

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