“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 is part of the 2006 citywide celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Franklin. It shows together for the first time several examples of Franklin’s portraits created by Houdon between 1778-1779, as well as significant sculpted and painted portraits of Franklin made by other French artists like Claude Dejoux and Jean-Jacques Caffieri. The exhibition also includes acclaimed busts of the playwright Molière and Enlightenment thinkers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, produced in the same year as part of a series of portrayals of great men, which demonstrate Houdon’s inventive use of varied formats and sources.
"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, who was himself the greatest portrait artist of his time."
The exhibition was conceived by Dean Walker (1948-2005), the late Henry P. McIlhenny Senior Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, and is being coordinated by Jack Hinton, the Mellon Curatorial Fellow in European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, along with Joseph J. Rishel, the Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting before 1900. “This exhibition will be a realization of Dean Walker’s vision, providing a fascinating look at the masterful rendering of Benjamin Franklin that Houdon made at the peak of his career as a sculptor and bringing together for the first time the best versions of this bust in a range of mediums,” said Hinton. “In addition to examining the genesis of this superb work of art, the exhibition will explore the competitive world of 18th-century French sculpture, when men like Houdon and Jean-Jacques Caffieri vied to capture the likenesses of the century’s most famous people."
The focus of this exhibition, Houdon’s 1779 marble 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.