Send lawyers, guns and money – Houdon’s Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

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There’s something special about marble. Ever since the invention of metal tools during the Bronze Age, marble has been carved by sculptors to tell stories about rulers, myths, heroes and heroines, and gods and goddesses. Master sculptors like Michelangelo, Bernini, Houdon, and Rodin dedicated their lives to working with it.

Marble and Subsurface Scattering
Marble lit from the back with shadows generated by a hand. Light that diffuses through marble is reflected throughout its subsurface.

Marble is softest when first quarried, won’t crack or shatter, and becomes denser and harder with age. Of all the commonly available stones, only marble has a translucency similar to that of human skin. When light shines on marble, some of it penetrates through the surface, scatters about many times at different angles, and is then either absorbed or exits at an angle that is different than light that only bounces off the surface (“subsurface scattering”). This is why marble has a visual depth beyond its surface that beckons sculptors to transform its cold, hard surface into the appearance of human flesh.


Antoine Callet, Portrait of King Louis XVI, 1778-79; Museo del Prado
Antoine Callet, Portrait of King Louis XVI, 1778-79; Museo del Prado

In 1776, while the average Parisian lived in abject poverty, the upper classes dressed in elegant silk and satin fashions and wore elaborate powdered, scented wigs. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette presided over a world of idle luxury at the palace of Versailles. Benjamin Franklin, scientist, orator, writer, intellectual, and founding father of the new United States of America, arrived in Paris that December to convince an absolute monarch to support the American colonies’ fight for independence from the British and their king. This would take panache.

Unconvinced that the Americans could win, the French Foreign Minister wanted Franklin’s presence in Paris to remain as quiet as possible. Inconspicuousness was the last thing Franklin had in mind.

Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul; Portrait of Benjamin Franklin; 1778 or 1779
Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul; Portrait of Benjamin Franklin; 1778 or 1779; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Understanding that he’d be received as an imposter if he played the part of a French aristocrat, Franklin dressed the role of the reputation that preceded him, that of a backwoods Quaker from the wilds of North America (he was never a Quaker). He wore simple brown suits, no wig, and ordered enough coonskin caps from Philadelphia so he could wear one at every public appearance. When people laughed at his clumsy attempts to speak French, he told them it was because he learned the language by lounging on the pillows of beautiful French women. His daily ‘air-baths’ (he sunbathed naked outside, weather permitting) added to his charm. “He has the unspoiled morals of a noble savage,” wrote one admirer. Seventy-year-old Franklin became an icon, a celebrity. People lined the streets to catch a glimpse of him. King Louis XVI is said to have been so annoyed by this adulation that he commissioned a Sèvres chamber pot (aka toilet) with Franklin’s face at the bottom.

The leading artists of the day clamored to create Franklin’s portrait. Soon, images of his face were sold everywhere, first in prints, and then in paintings, plaster and marble busts, statuettes, engravings, watercolors, etchings, on snuff boxes, and on thousands of terra cotta medallions – images so newsworthy that they were announced and discussed in French newspapers. Franklin wrote to his daughter that his face had become “as well-known as the moon.” The subject matter varied from simple portrayals to complex allegories celebrating his genius. Artists competed to create what would become known as the iconic image of Franklin; they also hoped to win his recommendation for future commissions for sculpture in the United States.

Left: Augustin de Saint-Aubin; Engraving of Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, after Charles-Nicolas Cochin the Younger, 1777; Right: Marguerite Gérard, Etching of To the Genius of Franklin, after a drawing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1778 (both Philadelphia Museum of Art)


Houdon Franklin Terracotta original Louvre
Houdon, Bust of Benjamin Franklin; Terracotta, 1778; Louvre Museum, Paris

France’s Jean-Antoine Houdon (oo-dawn) is now considered to be the greatest European sculptor of his time. In his hands, inert clay, plaster, and marble became breathing flesh. In 1778, hoping to please Franklin and to receive orders to carve it in marble, Houdon created a portrait bust of Franklin in terracotta (clay), now in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Using molds, Houdon produced copies of Franklin’s bust in plaster and terracotta to which he added distinctive touches. Houdon gave four plaster versions to Franklin as gifts, and Thomas Jefferson later purchased a plaster version from Houdon when he was in Paris.

Louis Léopold Boilly; The Studio of Jean-Antoine Houdon, c. 1804. Houdon invited guests to his studio to watch him at work, hoping they’d place an order. In this painting of Houdon in his studio, the model’s stick points up to the terracotta bust of Franklin on the shelf.

There are only two examples in the desirable and costly marble: on the left, one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, dated 1778, which remained in the sculptor’s possession until 1785 and, on the right, another at the Philadelphia Museum of Art:

The Philadelphia marble, dated 1779, was commissioned by someone whose name remains unknown. Created to please a paying patron, it is the more carefully carved of the two.

Franklin looks to his right and his head tilts slightly forward. He wears a simple Quaker plain neckcloth and suit with stitching around the buttonholes. His thinning hair falls naturally onto his shoulders, and the lips part slightly as if he’s about to speak. The marble forehead, cheeks, and neck read like soft and wrinkled skin.

image14.pngIt was Houdon’s ability to sculpt eyes that set his work above all the others. First, he cut out the iris into the shape of a bowl. Next, he hollowed out a hole for the pupil that was deep enough to prevent light from entering; this kept the pupil dark. Slits cut around the sides of the iris admit light.

Houdon, Franklin 2

A tiny bit of stone, the size of a grain of rice, reaches out from the hollowed surface of the iris up to the eyelid. That is why Franklin’s marble eyes look alive. The brightly lit tip of the sculpted bit of stone that hovers above a glowing iris and penetrating pupil appears as light glinting on the wet surface of a living eye.

Portrait painters knew the vital importance of capturing the gleam of light in eyes several hundred years before Houdon. Among sculptors, however, Houdon was the first to realize that sculpture, like painting, could be more than a reproduction of the shapes and surfaces of a face; marble could evoke the optical effects of nature.



What is even more remarkable is that Franklin never sat for Houdon; they didn’t formally meet until five years after the portrait was completed. Houdon only observed Franklin twice from a distance in April 1778 at two scientific meetings.


On February 6, 1778, a treaty of alliance was signed and France officially recognized the United States of America as an independent nation. A month later, Britain declared war on France, and Franklin, as America’s first ambassador, was granted an audience with King Louis XVI.

When Franklin debarked from his carriage at Versailles, a gasp ran through the huge crowd of spectators. The shocked nobility lined the palace’s corridors, watching as Franklin was escorted to the king’s royal apartments. “He’s dressed like a Quaker,” they murmured in half-frightened whispers. They were even more astonishment to discover that the king had chosen to honor his guest by not wearing a wig and dressed ‘simply’. The king, Franklin, and their diplomatic staff enjoyed dinner together.

In 1783, Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War. Without France’s financial and military aid, America could not have succeeded in its war for independence. When Franklin sailed back to Philadelphia in 1785, he was accompanied by Jean-Antoine Houdon. In the US, Houdon modeled portraits of George Washington (below left), Thomas Jefferson (below right), and other patriots. Houdon returned to Paris and narrowly escaped imprisonment during the French Revolution. He returned to favor and executed several portraits of France’s revolutionary notables, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for Franklin, he was nearly eighty when he set eyes for the first time on the country that had not existed on his departure, and for which he had done so much to create. It was disorienting. The American language had evolved since his departure. Philadelphia had become a bustling city.

Congress had generously compensated several of his colleagues for their European tours, but to them, Franklin belonged in the past. Most members of Congress knew him by reputation, but not personally. For having extracted the equivalent of $13 billion dollars today and the bulk of the gunpowder used in the Revolution from the French government, Franklin went to his grave without any thanks or compensation from Congress.

The Constitution only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself. – Benjamin Franklin


– Meighan Maley


*Warren Zevon, Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Benjamin Franklin & France Diplomacy:

Encountering Genius: Houdon’s Portraits of Benjamin Franklin; by Jack Hinton, Andrew Lins, and Melissa Meighan; 2011, Yale University Press


  1. great article. I often wondered how marble could be carved so delicately. Good information on Franklin.


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