Bust of Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790)
Jean-Antoine Houdon, French (active Paris), 1741 - 1828
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While minister from the American colonies to France from 1776 to 1785, Benjamin Franklin was a popular celebrity. The rage for his likeness resulted in images ranging from marble busts and paintings to prints and miniatures.
This bust was created by Jean-Antoine Houdon, the leading portrait sculptor of the eighteenth century. It is the most powerful and fully realized version of the best-known portrait of Franklin. Houdon's accomplishment is the more remarkable in that Franklin did not sit for the sculptor--the men did not meet formally until 1783. Presumably Houdon drew upon his experience of seeing Franklin at events such as meetings of the Masonic lodge to which they both belonged.
Houdon exhibited a terracotta version of the bust in the French Royal Academy Salon exhibition of 1779. Like other sculptors, Houdon sent works to the Salon to attract orders for reproductions in various materials. Using molds, Houdon could produce copies in plaster and terracotta to which he added distinctive touches. A German prince and Thomas Jefferson purchased plaster versions, and Franklin was given four by Houdon.
There are only two examples of Houdon's Franklin bust in the desirable and costly material of marble. The bust in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dated 1778, remained in the sculptor's possession until 1785. The Philadelphia Museum of Art's bust, dated 1779, is in every way the more carefully carved portrait. It was commissioned by an unknown person who had most likely seen the terracotta in the Salon or in Houdon's studio. The differences between the two marble busts may be due to the sculptor's exceptional effort to please his patron, and perhaps also to Houdon's increased familiarity with his subject's features.
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