When Franklin arrived in France in the autumn of 1776 to negotiate for aid and an alliance, he was already a celebrity. His simple dress and refusal to wear a wig made an impression in intellectual circles and elsewhere. Franklin lived at Passy in a house provided by Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont who commissioned a terra cotta medallion with his profile as well as this portrait, which was exhibited at the Salon of 1779. The original frame includes the attributes of Liberty, Peace, and Victory, and is accompanied by the simple Latin inscription VIR.
After training for many years in Paris, Duplessis presented himself to the Académie in 1769 and was afforded the opportunity to exhibit regularly at the Salon. His fortunes rose rapidly and he reached the first rank in 1777, showing a full-length portrait of Louis XVI (1754–1793) in state robes (the painting is presumed lost). Two years later he exhibited this oval of Benjamin Franklin in a red coat with a fur collar, a painting which was the subject of much favorable comment. It was destined to become the artist’s most famous work and perhaps the best known image of the great American patriot. The picture retains its elaborate original frame bearing the inscription VIR, which draws attention to the distinction of the sitter, whose identity was evidently regarded as obvious.
During his embassy to seek aid from France in the years 1777 to 1785, Franklin and the American cause were enormously popular and his simplicity was admired. His self-presentation, plain dress, thick waist, and untidy, deeply receding unpowdered hair, was in a general way certainly calculated. The portrait is signed and dated 1778 and was painted for Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, a wealthy entrepreneur who provided Franklin with a house on his estate near the village of Passy, on the outskirts of Paris, throughout the years of his embassy.
A portrait by Duplessis of Franklin that was evidently preliminary to this one (New York Public Library) is a pastel on parchment and shows him in precisely the same pose but wearing a gray collarless jacket and waistcoat. An x-radiograph demonstrates that originally Franklin’s coat did not have a fur collar in the present work either. The VIR portrait was engraved in reverse by Juste Chevillet (b.1729, d. before 1790) with the same inscription and date and the name of the first owner. The Museum also owns one of the better of many workshop copies (95.21).
Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, Paris (possibly until 1791); ?the Périer brothers, Paris (Jacques Constantin, d. 1818, and Auguste Charles); ?Scipion Périer, Paris (until d. 1821); the Périer family, Paris (1821–1919; sold to Friedsam); Michael Friedsam, New York (1919–d. 1931)
Paris. Salon. 1779, no. 128 (lent by M. de Chaumont).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Benjamin Franklin and His Circle," May 11–September 13, 1936, no. 5.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Life in America," April 24–October 29, 1939, no. 33.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "Portraits of Benjamin Franklin," February 15–April 20, 1997, no catalogue.
Philadelphia. National Constitution Center. "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of A Better World," December 15, 2005–April 30, 2006, unnumbered cat. (ill. p. 236).
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "In Pursuit of Genius: Jean-Antoine Houdon and the Sculpted Portraits of Benjamin Franklin," May 13–July 31, 2006, unnumbered cat. (fig. 13).
Denver Museum of Nature and Science. "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of A Better World," March 2, 2007–May 20, 2007.
Atlanta History Center. "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of A Better World," July 4–October 14, 2007.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Benjamin Franklin: Portraits by Duplessis," August 22–November 28, 2016, no catalogue.
Barthélémy Mouffle d'Angerville. Lettre II. September 25, 1779 [in "Mémoires secrets pour servir à l'histoire de la république des lettres en France . . .," London, 1777–89; reprinted in "Les Salons de Bachaumont," ed. F. Faré, 1995, p. 89], states that the portrait corresponds to its brief device, Vir.
P. S. du Pont de Nemours. Lettre à Margrave Caroline-Louise de Bade. 1779 [Salon review, in "Lettres sur les Salons," Archives de l'art français, nouvelle période, vol. 2, 1908, pp. 105–7] (McWilliam 1991, no. 0309), praises it and compares it with Alexander Roslin's portrait of Linnaeus, also exhibited at the Salon; reads Franklin's character in his features and expression, noting that his appearance and life correspond to the laconic inscription at the bottom, Vir.
"Lettre d'un Italien sur l'exposition de 1779." Mercure de France (September 18, 1779), p. 133 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 230, pp. 769–70; McWilliam 1991, no. 0302), praises the portrait.
[Robert Martin Lesuire]. Le mort vivant au Sallon de 1779. Amsterdam, 1779, pp. 18–19 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 209; McWilliam 1991, no. 0304).
[Jean-Baptiste Radet]. Ah! Ah! Encore une critique du Sallon!. Paris, 1779, p. 20 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 208; McWilliam 1991, no. 0286), calls this portrait of Benjamin Franklin a speaking likeness but a little gray; states that he is wearing a white satin suit.
[Monsieur de Labbes]. Le miracle de nos jours; conversation écrite et recueillie par un sourd et muet; et la bonne lunette. 1779, p. 42 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 219; McWilliam 1991, no. 0303), observes that although it is a good likeness, Duplessis has given Franklin a very common appearance: this famous foreigner can scarcely be recognized.
[Abbé Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Grossier]. Coup-d'œil sur les ouvrages de peinture, sculpture et gravure, de Messieurs de l'Académie royale. Geneva, 1779, p. 35 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 211; McWilliam 1991, no. 0295), as an accurate likeness.
[Louis François Henri Lefébure]. Janot, au Salon; ou le proverbe. Paris, 1779, p. 28 (Collection Deloynes, vol. 11, no. 212; McWilliam 1991, no. 0294), as a work which brings the greatest honor on Duplessis; although we must assume the sitter is seated, it might have been helpful to indicate a seat of some kind, so that the subject would not have the appearance of falling.
Elkanah Watson. Journal entry. September 15, 1779 [New York State Library, MS journal of Elkanah Watson, 3 43 55, excerpts in Ref. Sellers 1962, pp. 125–26], reports that when he crowded into the galleries of the Louvre on September 14 and 15 he found there "that masterpiece of painting representing our Illustrious Patron Doctr. Franklin, who is deposited (as a mark of particular respect) upon the left of his present Majesty"; elsewhere describes the portrait as hanging to the left of the those of the King and Queen.
Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Letter. October 1779 [reprinted in "Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique. . . ," ed. Maurice Tourneux, vol. 12, 1880, p. 327], observes that it would be Duplessis's masterpiece if the position of the sitter were better indicated: it is not clear whether he is standing or seated, and he appears to be falling.
Benjamin Franklin. Letter in French to Pierre Simon Fournier. Spring 1780 [in Ref. Oswald 1926, p. 10], states that Duplessis made a good portrait of himself in large size for M. de Chaumont and recommends it as a model to be copied in miniature, in this way saving Franklin the time and trouble of sitting again.
Clarence Winthrop Bowen. The History of the Centennial Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington as First President of the United States. New York, 1892, p. 449.
Jules Belleudy. J.-S. Duplessis, peintre du roi, 1725–1802. Chartres, 1913, pp. 1, 49, 85–87, 144, 304–5, 321–22, no. 57, ascribes to Duplessis at least seven replicas (New York, Boston, Berlin, Douai, Brest, two in Avignon) of the Franklin portrait exhibited in the 1779 Salon; notes that the original, which he identifies with the example in Boston, was made for Le Ray de Chaumont and engraved by Chevillet; mentions a 1783 pastel of Franklin by Duplessis (New York Public Library); reports some 1779 Salon commentary, and [mistakenly] includes remarks that refer to Franklin in a white satin coat.
"Col. Friedsam Buys Portrait of Franklin." New York Times (September 16, 1919), p. 31, reports Friedsam's purchase of this portrait and states that Franklin presented it to the Périer brothers when he concluded his ambassadorship in Paris.
Louis Réau. L'art français aux États-Unis. Paris, 1926, pp. 67–68, compares the puffy, clean-shaven face of Franklin emerging from a fur collar to the portrait of Franklin that Greuze showed in his studio in 1777; identifies the picture shown at the 1779 Salon as the example in the Friedsam collection, noting that it has the same inscription, Vir, on its frame that Dupont de Nemours mentions; states that the Friedsam portrait was owned by the Périer brothers, who acquired it directly from Franklin.
John Clyde Oswald. Benjamin Franklin in Oil and Bronze. New York, 1926, pp. 10, 12, ill. opp. title page, observes that this portrait and others by Duplessis of Franklin are known as "fur collar" portraits, and that Richard S. Greenough is quoted as saying that Franklin's fondness for fur in his pictures was due to the fact that fur was used as a professional badge by the early printers.
Louis Réau in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], pp. 194–95.
Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), pp. 50–52, no. 87, ill., believe this is the portrait shown at the Salon of 1779, as it is superior in quality to the others, is the only signed and dated example, and bears the word VIR on its regilded period frame; state that Friedsam bought it from a member of the Périer family; mention the tradition that M. de Chaumont was forced to sell his effects in 1791 and suppose that our picture may have been bought by the Périers at that time; mention nine copies.
"Friedsam Bequest to be Exhibited Next November." Art News 30 (January 2, 1932), p. 13, prints Bryson Burroughs's survey of the Friedsam paintings.
Josephine L. Allen. Eminent Americans. New York, 1939, unpaginated, fig. 2.
Michel N. Benisovich. "Duplessis in the United States, Addenda: 'Benjamin Franklin' at the White House, a Letter and a Drawing." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 29 (May 1946), pp. 287–88, fig. 4, claims that Duplessis regularly exhibited replicas of Chaumont's Franklin, shown in 1779, through the Salon of 1801; identifies Chaumont's portrait with the one in Boston; publishes a Franklin portrait given in 1945 by General de Gaulle to President Truman as a Duplessis sketch.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 171–73, ill., as the principal version, asserts that Duplessis painted a second portrait of Franklin in 1778, known through an engraving by Ambroise Tardieu and claims that a third version by Duplessis, in which Franklin appears without the fur collar, was exhibited at the Salon of 1801 and engraved by Pierre Alexandre Tardieu.
Albert Ten Eyck Gardner. "Huntington's Franklins." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (Summer 1956), pp. 16–17, ill. on cover (color).
Charles Coleman Sellers. Exhibition of Portraits Marking the 250th Anniversary of the Birth of the Society's Founder, Benjamin Franklin. Exh. cat., American Philosophical Society. [Philadelphia], , pp. 17–18.
Leonard W. Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Vol. 1, New Haven, 1959, p. xix, ill. (color, frontispiece).
Charles Coleman Sellers. Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven, 1962, pp. 124–37, 179, 246–64, 282, 317–18, 370, pl. 24, catalogues our picture and nineteen replicas; sees the pastel in the New York Public Library as either the original study for our picture or a contemporary copy by the artist, dating it 1778; based on the engraving of the 1801 Salon believes the Franklin portrait shown there by Duplessis was a fur collar portrait, matted or painted as an oval, and tentatively suggests it is the example at that time in the collection of the Earl of Ilchester, London; lists the symbols on the frame as a rattlesnake, liberty cap, club of Hercules, lion skin (for Britain), a branch of olive (for peace), a wreath of bay laurel (for victory), and a wreath of oak.
Nicholas B. Wainwright. "'Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture.' By Charles Coleman Sellers, 1962." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 50 (June 1963), p. 116.
Claude-Anne Lopez. Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris. New Haven, 1966, pp. 127, 140, 209, 233.
Pierre Rosenberg inFrench Painting, 1774–1830: The Age of Revolution. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1975, p. 405.
Louise Todd Ambler. Benjamin Franklin: A Perspective. Exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass. New York, 1975, pp. 82–83.
Meredith Martindale. "Benjamin Franklin's Residence in France: The Hôtel de Valentinois in Passy." Antiques 112 (August 1977), p. 273, ill. (Janinet engraving).
Michael Warner. "Franklin and the Letters of the Republic." Representations (Autumn 1986), p. 126, sees the inscription VIR or "virtuous citizen" as a pun on "fur" or "thief of letters", relating the inscription to Franklin's 1774 confrontation with Alexander Wedderburn, who attacked Franklin (then in England) before the Privy Council for sending secretly acquired inflamatory letters of Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, back to influential men in the Colonies.
Michael Warner. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass., 1990, p. 96.
Keith Arbour. "One Last Word: Benjamin Franklin and the Duplessis Portrait of 1778." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 118 (July 1994), pp. 183–208, fig. 1, suggests that "Franklin worked with Duplessis to insure that the portrait would convey the final word in the Franklin-Wedderburn exchange"; believes the pastel study (New York Public Library) precedes our painting and that the alteration of dress to include a fur collar was purposeful and made at Franklin's request.
Thomas J. Schaeper. France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725–1803. Providence, 1995, pp. 128–31, 332.
Thierry Bajou inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 9, New York, 1996, p. 400.
W. H. Bailey. Defining Edges: A New Look at Picture Frames. New York, 2002, pp. 60–61, ill. (color).
F. Marandet inAllgemeines Künstlerlexikon: die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Vol. 31, Munich, 2002, p. 57.
Jean-Paul Chabaud. Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, 1725–1802: Biographie. Mazan, 2003, pp. 41, 112, 123–24, ill. p. XVI (color).
John Ingamells. National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits, 1760–1790. London, 2004, p. 173.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell inFrench Art of the Eighteenth Century at The Huntington. Ed. Shelley M. Bennett and Carolyn Sargentson. [San Marino, Calif.], 2008, pp. 382–83, fig. 146.
Andrea Bayer. "Collecting North Italian Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America. Ed. Inge Reist. University Park, Pa., 2015, p. 94.
Master Paintings: Part I. Sotheby's, New York. January 29, 2015, pp. 206, 208–9, fig. 1 (color), under no. 82, discusses it in connection with a version of the "gray coat" composition.
Yuriko Jackall inAmerica Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2017, p. 307.
Melissa Hyde inAmerica Collects Eighteenth-Century French Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2017, pp. 84–85, 89 n. 98.
The oval frame for this iconic portrait of Benjamin Franklin is considered to be original (see Additional Images, figs. 1–3). Its carved crest and drop pendant with appropriately elaborate iconography are an homage to Franklin and his accomplishments as an American inventor, scholar, and statesman. It was most likely fabricated in 1778, when the portrait was painted.
The frame is characteristic of the Louis XVI period style with distinctive carved ornament including rais de coeur (lambs tongue) at the sight edge, feuille enroullé (twisted acanthus leaf and rod) within the flat fillet at the top edge, and pearling at the back edge. The oak substrate is gessoed and water gilded with matte and burnished passages on ochre and red bole. The frame is surmounted by a carved garland of olive, symbolizing peace and wisdom, and of laurel, used for the victor’s crown. Above it a branch of oak, a symbol of power, and another of American boxwood form a wreath. Entwined within the foliage forming the crest is an undulating rattlesnake, complete with forked tongue. This reptile, which is indigenous only to North America, is the topic of a letter Franklin submitted anonymously to the Pennsylvania Journal in 1775. In it he elaborates at length on the animal’s distinctive characteristics as they portray "a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America." The frame’s drop pendant is composed of a central cartouche or shield with the Latin inscription VIR, meaning hero. The shield secures a draped muskrat pelt with snarling teeth, protruding tongue, claws, and a distinctive rat-like tail. The muskrat head on the right balances a Phrygian cap on the left, a symbol of liberty. In North American native mythology, the muskrat was thought to have brought forth the earth from the mud, creation itself. Beneath, the pelt entwines a club, suggesting Hercules—the embodiment of truth, heroism, and determination—to whom Franklin was sometimes compared.
Duplessis was appointed peintre du roi in 1771 and it is likely that a painting of this importance would have been framed by an equally important frame maker. In the royal architectural bureau a distinguished wood carver/designer, François Charles Buteux (1732–1788) held the office of sculpteur des bâtiments du roi et de la chambre du comte d’Artois. According to Sarah Medlam ("Callet’s Portrait of Louis XVI: A Picture Frame as Diplomatic Tool," Furniture History 43 , pp. 143–54) he is best known for frames he supplied for a series of portraits of Louis XVI given as diplomatic gifts. A drawing by Buteux (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris) for a proposed frame which includes a cartouche and carved trophy and cresting is inscribed front and back. On its face it reads: "Referé le 11è aôut 1780.- approuvé / suivant la notice transcrite au Verso" (referred on August 11, 1780 - approved / following the summary transcribed on the back). And on its verso it reads in part: "L’Allegorie des treize Provinces-unies de l’Amerique Septentrionale, est exprimée d’un coté par le Bonnet Simbole de la liberté, et par la Massue, et le Serpent à Sonnetters . . ." (The allegory of the thirteen united Provinces of North America, is expressed on one side by the Symbolic Hat of liberty, by the Club, and the Rattlesnake). Medlam states this "constituted the boldest propaganda in favour of the new United States of America, designed to declare France’s championship of the American cause, notwithstanding the cap appearing (eleven) years before the French Revolution." The frame was not executed, perhaps because it was too incendiary in its symbolism, but there is every reason to believe that the design was an inspiration for the Metropolitan’s Duplessis frame, and in this case, entirely appropriate.
Further strengthening the proposed attribution is the fact that Buteux, as royal woodcarver and designer, is purported to have helped establish greater uniformity in the architectural bureau to the Louis XVI frame style, which specified the very ornament, rais de coeur, feuille enroullé, and pearls, found on our Duplessis frame. In addition, a series of four paintings by Guido Reni known as L’Histoire d’Hercule (Musée du Louvre, Paris)—commissioned by Ferdinando Gonzaga of Mantua and completed in 1621—passed through the collections of Charles I and Everhard Jabach and was acquired by Louis XIV in 1662. The series was reframed in 1784 in frames of François Charles Buteux’s design, with cartouches at the crest surmounted by a lion pelt and very familiar-looking wooden clubs.