Realism and Idealism 5

Sixteen years later—long a resident of London, famed for his achievements in science, his literary skills, and his political promi¬nence—Franklin recast his image. The successful tradesman is left behind, and in two major portraits he emerges as the consummate man of science, the experimenter, the thinker, the ultimate philosophe.
The Mason Chamberlin portrait (1762), whose details are here highlighted in the mid-nineteenth-century copy by Leslie, shows the abstracted, devoted student of science, the experimental observer, gazing intently not at the powerful, destructive storm, visi¬ble through the window on Franklin’s left, but at the lightning’s activation of the electrical apparatus on his right—wires and bells— whose motions Franklin, pen in hand, is about to record. The face is calm, the lips characteristically pursed, and the clothes still dark and plain, though the wig is now that of a man of substance, a profes¬sional of some distinction and status. Franklin liked this picture of himself as a man of science; it was promptly engraved and the prints were widely distributed. It was re-engraved a decade later, for a fron¬tispiece to a French translation of Franklin’s writings, and so it was in this form that Franklin’s image first appeared in French prints.
But a second portrait of the London years appealed to Franklin even more. In the portrait by David Martin of 1766, Franklin is no longer the technical experimenter probing the laws of nature. He is now more mature; he wears spectacles low on his nose; he is lost in thought; and he has attained an altogether new level of afflu¬ence. Seated in an upholstered chair whose back is decorated with gilded carvings, wearing an elegant powdered wig and a velvet suit with ornamental buttons and gold-braided buttonholes, surrounded by handsome leather-bound volumes, and facing—almost nose-to- nose—a bust of Newton, Franklin, thumb on chin, is the thinker, the calm contemplator of human fate. And yet, at the edges of his mouth there is a smile lurking, suggesting an Erasmian recognition of mankind’s folly.
Franklin particularly liked this portrait, its “thoughtfulness, calm¬ness, and reserve.” It was, as the painter Allan Ramsay said, a picture of “the philosopher… it seemed to think,” and it was a testimonial to Franklin’s achievements of the London years. He had a copy made (with the chair’s gilded carvings carefully removed) which he sent home to his wife and left in his will to the Supreme Executive Coun¬cil of Pennsylvania.
A decade later, on the cusp of his great adventure in Paris, Franklin’s persona was once again, and now sensationally, trans¬formed. His actual appearance, as he stepped onto the shore of Brit¬tany early in December 1776 accompanied by his two young grandsons, violated every norm of diplomatic behavior. The wig was gone and in its place was a rather ragged cap of marten fur, whose warmth he had discovered on his trip to Canada some months before; completely covering his head, it fell, in front, down over his brow but left visible, in back, his thin, shoulder-length gray hair. He still wore the silver-rimmed spectacles of the Martin portrait, but his clothes were dark and plain, free of all the earlier ornamentation. Short and stout, he carried only a white walking stick, an almost ironic deviation from the customary sword.
The plain clothes, the fur hat, the spectacles, the stick, the youth¬ful entourage were an unheard-of violation of normal ambas¬sadorial behavior, and they struck the leaders and publicists of a sophisticated nation, whose royal court was almost paralyzed by rit¬ual and protocol, as the unmistakable signs of a dramatic new force in public affairs. Lacking all of the usual symbols of eminence and power, Franklin’s appearance, in its very contrariness, became a power in itself. Eminendy newsworthy, it entered quickly into mass communication.
Within a few weeks of his arrival in Paris, Franklin’s portrait was sketched twice, once by the elderly, accomplished artist Charles Nicolas Cochin, and again by a perceptive amateur, the twenty-two- year-old Thomas Walpole, the son of the English banker who had once worked with Franklin in western land speculation and who now lived in Paris. These hasty, original drawings have not survived, but both became the basis for memorable images that circulated widely within France and then, in innumerable copies and mutations, throughout Europe. Both appealed to the hopes and aspirations of enlightened reformers everywhere; both reflected Franklin’s sense of his and his nation’s ideal role in world history.
Cochin sent his preliminary drawing to his regular collaborator, Augustin de Saint-Aubin, a distinguished engraver, who produced a print from the quick sketch that proved to be one of the most widely distributed news pictures of the eighteenth century and the most enduring depiction of Franklin as ideologue. There is no way of tracing the number of copies of the print Cochin and Saint-Aubin sold or distributed, no way of cataloguing the many variations of the print that were made by others, no way even of identifying all the media, the art and craft forms, in which this image appeared. But none of the surviving variations recaptures the force of the original: the strange sidelong glance; the awkward but somehow comfortable fit of the hat and the spectacles; the self-confident, slightly disdainful tight-lipped expression that suggested deep reserves of experience, purpose, and guile. It is an eloquent print which not only bore a mes¬sage from the New World to the Old that alarmed the state censors, but also tickled the fancy of high society: fashionable women soon began dressing their hair with fur “a la Franklin”’
The sensational Cochin print was published in early June 1777, six months after Franklin’s arrival. Simultaneously, the young Walpole’s sketch appeared, in an unexpected form, made possible by Franklin’s generous philo-American landlord in Passy, the businessman Dona- tien Le Ray de Chaumont. Devoted to liberal causes, an early sup¬plier of materiel to the American army, and a great admirer of Franklin, Chaumont sent Walpole’s sketch to the artist-manager of his pottery factory, Jean Baptiste Nini, with orders to use it as the basis of a terra-cotta medallion to honor the distinguished Ameri¬can. Nini grappled with the problems presented by Walpole’s sketch and produced a series of trials of the bas-relief profile. The fur hat as sketched by Walpole or as described to Nini must have defeated him, since he simply copied Rousseau’s fur hat as shown in Ramsay’s famous portrait of Rousseau and its popular mezzotint reproduction, thereby heightening the ideological effect of the Franklin medallion by creating a visual association between the two men instantly recognizable by the cognoscenti. The spectacles gave him trouble too. In one trial he bent the left bar down sufficiently to reveal the eye; in the end he gave that up entirely.

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