At their meeting on December 19, 1996, the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Board of Trustees and Museum Director Anne d'Harnoncourt announced the acquisition of a marble bust of Benjamin Franklin carved by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828) in 1779. Houdon's image of Franklin as a wise and energetic statesman in his mid-seventies has long since achieved the status of national icon in the United States, influencing countless other portraits of Franklin and shaping his image in the popular mind. The bust was acquired for the Museum at auction at Sotheby's, New York, on December 5, 1996. This major acquisition has been made possible through the generous support of a private foundation and the use of endowed Museum purchase funds, as well as gifts from individual donors that are being made to the Fund for Franklin established by the Museum Trustees.
"The Museum has, since its founding in 1876, been a showcase for Philadelphia's distinguished cultural heritage as well as home to exceptional works of art from throughout the world. French art from medieval times through the twentieth century is particularly well-represented in the Museum's collections, and our holdings of American art of the Colonial and Federal periods are justly celebrated. We are, therefore, thrilled to welcome to the Museum Houdon's bust of Benjamin Franklin, a splendid sculpture that quite literally embodies the vital artistic and intellectual crosscurrents between France and the United States during the age of the Enlightenment, and enormously grateful to the generosity of everyone who is helping to bring this about," said Ms. d'Harnoncourt.
"The history of Philadelphia offers so much to inspire pride in the city, from its preeminent role as a political and intellectual center at the time of the American Revolution, to its achievements today as a hub for business and cultural activity. Benjamin Franklin and the Art Museum represent two of the finest chapters in Philadelphia's story, and I eagerly invite those near and far to visit the Museum and admire Houdon's amazing representation of a great man," commented Edward Rendell, Mayor of Philadelphia.
Jean-Antoine Houdon is regarded now, as in his day, as the premier portrait sculptor of the 18th century. After achieving his first fame while a student in Rome, he rose to prominence in the 1770s, frequently exhibiting in the Academy's salons in Paris and attracting commissions from Catherine the Great of Russia, the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, and members of the French royal family. In the United States, he is best known for his portraits of Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, the naval hero John Paul Jones, as well as his bust of General Lafayette. On the recommendation of Franklin and Jefferson, Houdon received the sought-after commission for a life-sized marble statue of George Washington that is now housed in the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and in 1785 the sculptor traveled to America with Franklin to obtain sittings with Washington at the beginning of the project.
The bust of Benjamin Franklin was created while Franklin was serving as ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785. A model, probably of terra cotta, was first shown publicly in Paris in 1779, and Houdon intended to reproduce it in various materials for Franklin's many admirers. (Franklin was enormously well- regarded in France and images of him were produced by many French artists). Only two marble examples of the bust are known to exist: one, dated 1778, which is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the 1779 bust just acquired by the Museum. Dean Walker, the Museum's Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture observes, "In this later portrait Houdon was more familiar with Franklin's appearance and took the utmost care in sharpening his model of the previous year. The result is arguably the most subtle and compelling characterization of Franklin created in any medium."
Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was born in Boston and moved to Philadelphia in 1723, where he found employment as a printer and eventually launched the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanack. He retired from publishing in 1748 and pursued scientific and literary activities which eventually led to a Master of Arts degree awarded by Harvard and Yale in 1753. He was often called Dr. Franklin after the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, Sctoland, awarded him the degree of Doctor of Laws in 1759. Long involved in public affairs, Franklin became a premier proponent of American independence, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence and a participant in the writing of the Constitution. His thoughts were so vital to the progeressive developments of his time that the decades around l776 are often referred to as "The Age of Franklin."
Darrel Sewell, the Museum's Curator of American Art, commented: "Benjamin Franklin has been one of the most frequently portrayed Americans in the history of art. As he complained in a letter of 1780, `I have at the Request of Friends, sat so much and so often to Painters and Statuaries, that I am perfectly sick of it.' This Museum has been fortunate to acquire over the years several hundred images of Franklin--comprising paintings, prints, and porcelain figures by American, English, and French artists-- including 150 portraits assembled by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and given to the Museum in 1946. It is very gratifying that the Museum's extensive collection should now have at its center a quintessential portrait sculpture of Franklin that creates the effect of being directly in company with the great man. It is a powerful work of art."
The Bust of Benjamin Franklin is believed to have been the property of a French family from 1828 until 1931. In 1939, it was acquired by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, and in 1975 it joined the collection of the British Rail Pension Fund, which lent it to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, from l986 to l995. The portrait was included in the landmark exhibition "200 Years of American Sculpture" at the Whitney Museum of American art during the nation's bicentennial celebration in 1976.
The newly acquired sculpture is on view at the Museum in a rotunda expressly designed for sculpture by Fiske Kimball, the architectural historian and authority on Monticello who served as the first director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to work with its new building that opened in l928. For the opening festivities, Kimball borrowed sculpture by Houdon to fill that rotunda and stress the creative interaction between 18th-century France, England and America which is evident in so many other works of art in the Museum's galleries, but until now the Museum has lacked one of the artist's major portraits of an American hero. "It was worth waiting almost 70 years to fulfill this longstanding dream with such an eloquent image of a Founding Father," concluded Ms. d'Harnoncourt.