Realism and Idealism 6

Nini’s final terra-cotta medallion, with Rousseau’s hat and a rather bland, plump Franklin without glasses, bearing under the cut of the shoulder a shield decorated with lightning and thunderbolts, was an enormous success, far greater than Chaumont could have hoped for. It was a sensation when it appeared for sale at a fashion¬able porcelain exhibit at Versailles, and it appealed to Franklin per¬sonally, not only because he liked this comfortable, homey picture of himself but also because he recognized its power in popularizing the American cause. He happily distributed copies to friends in Europe and to family members at home, commenting that with this popular medallion, together with the Cochin print and the variations derived from them, his face had become as well known as that of the moon.
He could not have known how true this was. In the two years that followed, and especially after the American victory at Saratoga in October 1777 and the Franco-American alliance of February 1778, a veritable avalanche of likenesses appeared, in every conceivable form. From the Sevres porcelain factory came not only a series of derivative medallions and busts but also china cups with Franklin’s portrait painted on the sides, together with saucers decorated with symbols of the Franco-American alliance. From a factory in Lorraine came a statuette group showing Louis XVI, in armor, offering Franklin two scrolls, one inscribed “Independance de If Amerique,” the other “Liberte des mers”. From elsewhere in France came a glass-cased wooden model of Franklin the scientist happily at work; the small, beaming doll-like figure, complete with natural hair and a removable hat, is seated at a table containing an electrical machine with moving parts. Later, from Germany, came a painted wax high relief showing a rather distracted Franklin with protruding eyes clutching a large volume to his ornamented robe. And there would be an enormously popular statuette of Franklin in full figure, sagging rather strangely at the knees, origi¬nally produced in terra-cotta, then reproduced in various metals, in marble, in plaster, and in china, “and in every size from miniature to life”.
By then two great sculptors had produced remarkable busts. Jean- Jacques Caffieri, eager for commissions from the new nation, worked quickly, and completed his bust soon after Franklin’s arrival. Franklin, sitting for the sculptor, had insisted on exactitude, and those who knew him at the time, and Franklin himself, believed it to be the most accurate reproduction of his features ever made. But though there is no deliberate effort at idealization or dramatization, the effect is quietly heroic. It is the realistic, unpretending face of a person of extraordinary solidity of character, inner strength, reserve, and poise. Jean-Antoine Floudon’s bust, completed a year after Caffieri’s and based on casual observation, not direct measurement, is more of a comment, a statement, than Caffieri’s, and more of an effort at popularization. The face is in motion—alert and involved. In Caffieri’s the eyes are caught in an abstracted gaze, in Houdon’s the pupils are fixed on a specific object somewhere to the side. In Caf¬fieri’s the mouth is firm, unexpressive, unsmiling; in Houdon’s it is partly open as if speaking, and vaguely smiling. In Caffieri’s the hair falls straight; in Houdon’s it is drawn, somewhat romantically, back behind the ears. Both are masterly representations, but Caffieri’s is that of dignity abstracted and contained; Houdon’s, a fleshier face, is that of a personality engaged. Casts and other reproductions of both were immediately and repeatedly made, but the casts that Franklin bought for his own distribution were those of Caffieri.
Thus Franklin, seen first as the successful bourgeois, then as the man of science, the intellectual, had become—to Adams’s immense chagrin—the embodiment of American idealism and of the hopes of enlightened reform. But by 1779, when Houdon formally exhib¬ited his Franklin, yet another, and final, stage in Franklin’s iconogra¬phy had been reached. By then his image had transcended mere representation and entered into allegory. The physical person— ideologized by Cochin and Nini and vividly realized by Caffieri and Houdon—is left behind, transposed into a symbol within a realm of visual metaphors.
Franklin first appears in allegory in a casual sketch by Fragonard, dashed off in a single morning, early in 1778, to allow his friend, the amateur artist the Abbe de Saint-Non, to demonstrate to Franklin the new process of aquatint engraving. As finished by Saint-Non, the print shows a warm, gentle scene, in which a pleasant- looking liberty is about to crown with laurel leaves the Caffieri bust of Franklin, which is held by an angel atop a terrestrial globe. Penn¬sylvania’s constitution is draped across the globe, and the symbolic liberty cap and pole appear above, in beams of light.
Later in the year Fragonard turned more seriously to the same theme, and produced a striking print. Franklin, in a volumi¬nous toga, is seated aloft, and at his knee sits America, holding the nation’s fasces. One of Franklin’s arms points high above to a winged Minerva fending off lightning with her shield; the other arm points below to a ferocious Mars cutting down Tyranny and Avarice with a savage backhanded cut of his sword. The integration of the design by the gesture of Franklin’s arms, the flow and spontaneity of the arrangement of figures and drapery are the work of a master artist. And the message is clear. The print bears Turgot’s famous epigram, suppressed by the censors in earlier representations but now officially approved: Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tirannis—He seized lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.

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