Realism and Idealism 7

Fragonard’s skill stands out in contrast to the other major allegor¬ical print of 1778, that of Antoine Borel. Drawn indepen¬dently of Fragonard’s, it has similar elements: Franklin is again in Roman costume (though now sandaled and wreathed); one hand is on the shoulder of America (now a half-naked female Indian); a protective Minerva swirls above (now a spear thrower against evil); and Mars beats down Britain and Neptune with a backhanded smash of his club. But the ambitious Borel, hoping to find favor with American patrons, added much more to the scene. Now Pru¬dence appears, close to Franklin’s side; Liberty stands high on a pedestal holding the liberty cap and pole; Commerce, Agriculture, and the Arts are there, viewing with satisfaction the destruction of Britain; three small, anonymous faces—of mankind?—press for¬ward from a corner of the background to catch a glimpse of the scene; and in the deeper background an exotic tree blossoms, a sym¬bol of the New World context in which the action is placed. In all, thirteen faces crowd Borel’s print. It is as static as Fragonard’s flow¬ing picture is dynamic, as pedantic as Fragonard’s is artistic, as lit¬eral as Fragonard’s is poetic. But, however different, both prints, famous in their own time and after, show Franklin as a mythological figure, the liberator of America and the nemesis of evil, tyranny, and Britain.
But while Franklin thus entered the pantheon of mythological fig¬ures in the allegories of the time, his physical presence continued to fascinate the artistic, fashionable, and ideological world, sometimes with odd results. Amedee Van Loo turned out a rather bemused, smiling, very private Franklin, painted for the personal enjoyment of Mme Helvetius; later, during the French Revolution, it would be redone as a more pensive, puzzled figure by Pierre-Michel Alix. The famous Jean-Bapdste Greuze painted a sly-looking Franklin half in shadows and most elegandy clothed. Jacques Thouron, in a miniature enamel, projected a tight-lipped face with wildly windblown hair. And Franklin’s talented neighbor, the young, romantic Anne-Rosalie Filleul, produced a dashing figure, a man-about-town in a fur-trimmed dressing gown, shirt collar rak¬ishly open, and a white satin waistcoat crossed over the chest in double-breasted fashion. The engraving made from her painting bore not only the now standard Turgot epigram but the almost obligatory “Né à Boston le 17 Janvier I706” a datum mocked by the subject’s youthful appearance.
So, as the American delegation strove to fulfill its mission, the ideals, the goals, of the American cause became more and more focused on the image of Franklin, now fused with the aspirations of the Enlightenment itself. But then, in 1778, one final painting, the masterpiece of Franklin portraiture, took all of this visual commen¬tary to an ultimate step—beyond allegory and the symbols of virtue and vice—and identified Franklin with humanity itself, its achieve¬ments, hopes, and possibilities.
No one who viewed the “fur collar” portrait by Joseph Siffred Duplessis, the leading royal portraitist, when it was first exhibited in 1779 doubted that this was a supreme artistic achievement. The rhapsodies that greeted the work, commis¬sioned by the same Le Ray de Chaumont who had sponsored the Nini medallion and who continued to host the American represen¬tatives in Passy, cannot, in retrospect, be thought excessive. The explicit messages and the ideological gadgetry of the earlier por¬traits are left behind. The face is worn, the skin pouched, the eyes somewhat puffed and tired, but the portrait radiates experience, wisdom, patience, tolerance, and a world-weariness beyond all clev¬erness and guile. Yet the firm, pursed lips are resolute and purpose¬ful, and the faint smile engaging. One sees, and feels, a dignified presence, a calm, dispassionate, rich personality unconstrained by nationality, occupation, or rank. The frame, ornate and gilded, is crowded with symbols—rattlesnake, liberty cap, and lion’s-skin tro¬phy beneath an elevated wreath of triumph -but the picture itself is uncluttered, and the simple, powerfully understated legend, not “Franklin” but “Vir”— man or mankind—conveys, as nothing more elaborate could have done, the elemental quality that Duplessis had seized. Franklin knew that this was the ultimate visual depiction of his life, and so he declined, in the years that followed, to sit for fur¬ther portraits, telling ambitious artists simply to copy Duplessis, which they, and Duplessis himself, did again and again, until this portrait of the triumphant year 1778 became a timeless icon of Enlightenment hopes and America’s role in human history.
At Franklin’s death, twelve years later, Duplessis’s “ Vir” would reappear, as the legend on a memorial bust of the “illustre phi- lantrope” placed dramatically at the center of a black-draped room by Les Amis de la Revolution et de l’Humanite. It was one among many memorials, eloges, and obsequies devoted to Franklin’s memory in France, among them a final pair of allegories, now of his celestial elevation. At first he is shown drawn rather uncomfortably between Immortality, cradling his head and lifting him up into the bosom of divinity, while Death, clinging to his leg, attempts to drag him into the fires of Oblivion. America, nude, kneels at his side amid broken shackles; France and Philosophy weep at his demise; his fame is trumpeted to the universe; and a lightning rod draws fire from the sky. But once safely aloft, he is in charge in the Champs-Elysees, welcoming Mirabeau to the company of Rous¬seau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Mably, and Fenelon, whose main writ¬ings are well displayed, while Demosthenes and Cicero look on in admiration.

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