“One of the most beautiful attributes of the difficult art of statuary is that it preserves forms in all their truth and renders almost imperishable the images of men who have brought their nation glory or happiness.” – Jean-Antoine Houdon
As ambassador of the newly formed United States of America to France from 1776 to 1785, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) captivated the citizens of Paris upon his arrival and was quickly elevated to celebrity status. None, however, were more enthralled with the celebrated scientist, philosopher, and statesman than the French artists who clamored to capture his image, and none produced a more stunning likeness than master portrait sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828).
From May 13 to July 31, 2006, in the second-floor European Galleries, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present In Pursuit of Genius: Jean-Antoine Houdon and the Sculpted Portraits of Benjamin Franklin, an exhibition of some 30 works focusing on the Museum’s own 1779 marble Bust of Benjamin Franklin, considered the finest version of the most familiar image of the famous Philadelphian.
The exhibition will be part of the 2006 citywide celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Franklin. It will include examples of Houdon’s two later, revised portraits of Franklin, as well as other significant sculpted portraits of Franklin made by other French artists.
“As Philadelphia fetes its favorite historical figure in the coming year,” said Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “it is appropriate for the Museum, located at the apex of the handsome boulevard that bears Benjamin Franklin’s name, to re-examine what is arguably one of the most extraordinary portraits made by Houdon.”
“This exhibition will provide a fascinating look at the masterful rendering of Benjamin Franklin that Houdon made at the peak of his career as a sculptor and will bring together for the first time the best versions of this bust in a range of mediums,” said Dean Walker, The Henry P. McIlhenny Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, who organized the exhibition. “In addition to examining the genesis of this superb work of art, the exhibition will explore the competitive world of 18th-century French sculpture and take visitors into the heart of the French Salons of the time.” The focus of this exhibition, Houdon’s 1779 bust of Franklin, crowns the Museum’s collection of historic portraits of the Founding Father. The bust is the most fully realized version of Houdon’s earliest portrait of Franklin. Facing forward, with his head slightly tilted, eyes to the right, and lips slightly parted, Franklin’s brilliant mind at work has been captured by the French artist. Though not a member of the Society of Friends, Franklin is shown in the simple clothing often referred to as “Quaker dress,” which he often wore in France, avoiding the elaborate attire that was customary for ambassadors at the time.
What makes this vision of Franklin all the more impressive, however, is the fact that Houdon made this sculpture without the benefit of studio sittings. He probably observed Franklin only at public gatherings, during which the American ambassador usually remained characteristically quiet. As an approach to a subject who was immensely popular with artists, Houdon’s bust stands as a testament to both Franklin and the sculptor’s respective genius. Accompanying the exhibition will be a publication with an essay by Dean Walker examining the traditions of representing learned men, philosophers, and intellectuals, the circumstances in which sculpted portraits were exhibited publicly, and Franklin’s reactions to his portraits.
About Jean-Antoine Houdon
Born in 1741, Jean-Antoine Houdon studied in Paris under such sculptors as Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne and Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. As a winner of the Prix de Rome, he worked in Rome from 1764 to 1768, where he was influenced by ancient artifacts recently uncovered at Pompeii and the works of the masters of the Renaissance. Skilled in a variety of mediums, he became a member of the Académie Royale in 1771, and later a professor in 1778. Houdon established his reputation with his sculpted portraits, creating a veritable “who’s who” of 18th-century royalty and philosophers. In 1785, at the request of Thomas Jefferson, he crossed the Atlantic to stay at Mount Vernon to execute a portrait of George Washington. Narrowly escaping imprisonment during the French Revolution, Houdon returned to favor under Napoleon and retired in 1814.