Skip to main content

In Pursuit of Genius: Jean-Antoine Houdon and the Sculpted Portraits of Benjamin Franklin

May 13–July 30, 2006

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in December 1776 as minister for the American colonies, he was already famous for his experiments with electricity and invention of the lightning rod. Charged with the crucial mission of obtaining support for the Revolutionary War, he became a focus of attention for a sympathetic French public, and was quickly elevated to celebrity status. Images of Franklin proliferated, and the leading artists of the day clamored to take his portrait. The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828) created perhaps the most familiar and powerful portrayal of the famous Philadelphian and Founding Father.

As part of the Philadelphia consortium's celebration of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), this exhibition focuses on the Museum's marble portrait bust of Franklin, dated 1779. For the first time, the finest versions of this bust in a range of mediums are brought together, offering a rare opportunity to explore the genesis of this work, its place within this moment of Houdon’s career, and its later reworking and influence.

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s portraits of the Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are presented, allowing the visitor to see both the artist's versatility and his skill in creating stunning, lifelike portrayals which transformed the genre of portrait sculpture. Renderings of Franklin by distinguished eighteenth-century artists, including paintings by Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Joseph Siffred Duplessis, and sculptures by Claude Dejoux and Jean Jacques Caffieri, are also presented. These works demonstrate the competition among artists for the creation and control of Franklin’s image, and place Houdon’s sculpture in a broader context. The sculptor’s rivalry with the more established Caffieri over their respective busts of the Founding Father is brought to life by letters from the artists, which show their ambitions to be awarded future commissions in the United States, and Houdon's eventual triumph.

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 presented in his honor.

For more information about the Benjamin Franklin anniversary celebration, please visit


This exhibition is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary, a consortium of five institutions including the American Philosophical Society, The Franklin Institute, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Houdon's Great Men

The exhibition begins in the Museum’s beautiful rotunda gallery, conceived as a space for the display of sculpture, which was inaugurated in 1928 with an exhibition of Houdon's portraits of American patriots—with Franklin prominent among them.

Today, Houdon's bust of Franklin is joined by his portrayals of the Enlightenment thinkers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire and his retrospective portrait of the seventeenth-century poet Molière, all completed in the period 1778–79. The enthusiastic reception given these portraits when exhibited with the Franklin at the French Royal Academy’s Salon of 1779 confirmed the sculptor’s reputation.

The variety of approaches employed by Houdon in realizing these portraits demonstrate the artist’s ability to synthesize different sources in creating vital, naturalistic renderings that capture the inner lives of those portrayed. He worked from sittings and measurements for Voltaire, a death mask for Rousseau, and prints or paintings for Molière.

A letter sent by Houdon in 1783, which is included in this exhibition, suggests he had not formally met Franklin until five years after the portrait was completed, indicating that it was realized without formal posing sessions. The sculptor must have created the portrait from close observation of Franklin at meetings of the Masonic lodge to which they both belonged. The three finest versions of the sculptor's brilliant characterization of Franklin are presented in the center of this gallery, allowing visitors to make a fascinating comparison. Created at the height of his powers as an artist, Houdon's renderings of these great men hold a prominent place in our imagination; their success in bringing to life these figures embodies the genius of both the sculptor and his subjects.

Franklin in France

In the adjoining gallery, images of Franklin by some of the greatest artists of the eighteenth-century are presented. These works of art shed light on Franklin’s fame, and put Houdon’s portrait into its historical and artistic context.

When he arrived in France, Franklin shunned the elaborate costume normally worn by statesmen and ambassadors, preferring instead simple clothing, of the type generally worn by writers and intellectuals, by which the French were fascinated. Images of Franklin proliferated—and although he grew tired of posing for artists, he was aware of the propaganda value this publicity held in the American fight for independence. Such was his popularity that, in a 1779 letter sent to his daughter, Franklin acknowledged that his face had become “as well known as that of the moon.”

The earliest images to appear were prints, such as the portrait by Augustin de Saint Aubin. These images were so topical that they were announced and discussed in French newspapers. The subject matter varied from simple portrayals to complex allegories celebrating Franklin’s genius. Other early portraits include a painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, a unique, hand-worked plaster bust by the sculptor Claude Dejoux and a bust by Jean-Jacques Caffieri, all created in 1777. Caffieri’s bust was a very accurate rendering of Franklin’s features, as the artist had the advantage of posing sessions—Franklin himself purchased plaster reproductions from the artist. Houdon’s later bust can be seen as a challenge to this work, and the fierce rivalry between the artists is explored in this exhibition.

Also in this gallery is a painting of Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, a defining image that attracted even more attention than Houdon's portrait at the Salon of 1779, and an example of the print shown by Louis Jacques Cathelin that same year. Cathelin’s print was engraved after a painting by Anne-Rosalie Filleul, which is also presented. In addition, this area of the exhibition examines Houdon’s reworking and replication of his Franklin bust, demonstrating the enduring appeal of this captivating portrait.

Main Building


This exhibition is supported by a leadership gift from The Pew Charitable Trusts.


Jack Hinton • The Mellon Curatorial Fellow of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture
Joseph J. Rishel • The Gisela and Dennis Alter Senior Curator of European Painting before 1900

Check out other exhibitions

View full calendar