‘Nul homme ne fut plus à la mode, plus recherché que le docteur Franklin : la foule courait après lui dans les promenades et les lieux publics (…).’ Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Souvenirs沙巴体育在线, Paris, 1986, II, p. 255-256.
Post Lot Text
JOSEPH DUCREUX (NANCY 1735-1802 PARIS)
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, bust-length, wearing a blue, fur-lined coat
pastel on paper (four strips of paper added along the edge), laid down on canvas, on a stretcher, oval
72 x 57,5 cm. (28 3/8 x 22 5/8 in.)
Long but erroneously attributed to Jean-Baptiste Greuze, this moving and well preserved portrait of the great American politician, diplomat and scientist Benjamin Franklin, this work can now be reidentified with the created painted in 1777 by Joseph Ducreux, one of the outstanding pastellists and portraitists of the French eighteenth century. A true polymath, Franklin, who among invented the lightning rod among other things, and who was a great defender of the French-American alliance, arrived in France in 1776, where until 1785 he represented the young Republic of the United States of America, which had just declared itself independent from the United Kingdom. His main mission was to negotiate an alliance with the French, and he became immediately and widely popular and celebrated in the salons of Paris, where the greatest portraitists of the time vied for the honour of depicting him.
Ducreux probably met Franklin thanks to his connection to his colleague Maurice-Quentin de La Tour, himself a friend and neighbor in Arcueil of Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius, whose famous salon welcomed many of the major political, philosophical and artistic figures of the day, and where Franklin had become a guest of honour. According to duke Emmanuel de Croÿ, ‘he was a very tall and handsome man, with long white hair, who wore everywhere a hat like a Quaker; in addition, he almost always wore large spectacles, without which he never had been able to see’. In the present pastel, the striking ambassador of the New World proudly displays these differences in his appearance, soberly clothed and not donning the powdered wigs worn by all courtiers at Versailles. A work of great naturalism, the coloured touches of pastel in the face subtly remind the viewer of the passage of time. It may be the only known portrait of Franklin where he is represented with his glasses, with the exception of one by Anne-Rosalie Filleul (1753-1794), which shows him leaning on a desk, with the glasses in front of him (private collection, France; see J. Ingamells, op. cit., p. 173).
According to Neil Jeffares, two other versions of the present portrait exist: one, on canvas, considered a replica by Ducreux at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (inv. 58.P.2, previously attributed to Amédée Van Loo; see Jeffares, op. cit., no. J.285.375), the other considered a copy, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 83.2.467, previously attributed to Greuze; see Jeffares, op. cit., no. J.285.376). Apart from Ducreux, Joseph-Siffred Duplessis and Jean-Baptiste Greuze are the two other major pastellists who portrayed the famous American. Duplessis did so on two occasions, the first time in a pastel titled ‘Portrait au collier de fourrure’ (portrait with fur collar), made and exhibited at the Salon in 1778, is closest to the present example; also of oval format, it shows its subject wearing a red coat lined with fur (fig. 1; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 32.100.132; see K. Baetjer, French Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Early Eighteenth Century Through the Revolution, New York, 2019, no. 59, ill.). The second is a pastel on vellum, drawn in 1779 and depicting Franklin in more modest attire, a grey coat against a grey background (New York Public Library, inv. 260052; see Baetjer, op. cit., fig. 59.2). Greuze’s pastel, made in preparation for an oil painting on canvas (Sotheby’s, New York, 30 January 1998, lot 120), is also oval and made in 1777, and show the sitter in clothes similar to that in Ducreux’ work (American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia; see Ingamells, op. cit., p 173).
Benjamin Franklin was also represented in sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon. A terracotta version, now at the Musée du Louvre (inv. RF349), was shown at the Salon of 1779, while the version in marble is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 72.6). This bust inspired Jean-Honoré Fragonard for his portrait in brush and brown ink at the Art Institute de Chicago (inv. 1933.806). Portraits of Franklin became widespread from 1777 onward, mostly based on the pastel on vellum by Duplessis, such as the miniatures on ivory in delicate greytones by François Dumont (Ingamells, op. cit., p. 171, n. 7) and Lorenz Sparrgren (Christie’s, London, 18 December 1990, lot 65), or the painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (Royal Society, London; see Jeffares, op. cit., s.v. Dupplesis, p. 1). In addition, countless medals, prints, or snuff boxes and other depictions found an enthusiastic public (Visiteurs de Versailles. Voyageurs, princes, ambassadeurs 1682-1789沙巴体育在线, exhib. cat., Versailles, Château de Versailles, and New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2018, p. 216).