Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait enamel of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), wearing fur-bordered cloak 

Jean Baptiste Weyler (1747-91)

Portrait enamel of Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), wearing fur-bordered cloak, Jean Baptiste Weyler
Enamel on metal
18th Century
Oval, 3/4 in (19 mm) high
David David-Weill (1871-1952) Collection, Neuilly-sur-Seine, no. 4264; Sold by Wildenstein, Paris to Sir Charles Clore, London; The Clore Collection of Miniatures, part II, Sotheby’s, London 1986, lot 197
L. Gillet, C. Jeannerat and H. Clouzot, Miniatures and Enamels from the D. David-Weill Collection, Paris, 1957, no.381 S. Coffin and B. Hofstetter, The Gilbert Collection, Portrait Miniatures in Enamel, London, 2000, p.111
London, Garrards, An Exhibition of Important 18th and 19th Century Miniatures and Enamels at Garrard, 1961, no.381
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Set into a gold frame with ribbon surmount, the foliate pierced and enameled border set with enamelled urns and basket decorated with seed pearls, the reverse glazed to reveal the counter-enamel.

Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman and polymath, was born in Boston, the youngest son of a soap and candle maker. After an apprenticeship in the print trade he escaped to New York, finally settling in Philadelphia. Here he set up in partnership with another printer and was able to publish his writings in pamphlets, eventually owning a newspaper and becoming the official printer of Philadelphia. His interests furthered into science, where he published theories on electricity.

When, in 1776, he was sent to Paris as a diplomat, he was welcomed into the scientific community where his high reputation allowed an entrée into society, including the court of King Louis XVI. In 1783, he signed the Peace Treaty, which recognised the independence of the United States of America.

Whilst in Paris, Franklin was painted and sculpted by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis, Houdon and the miniaturist François Dumont. In 1785, Jean-Baptiste Weyler submitted a project to paint Franklin in enamel as part of a ‘Panthéon Iconographique’. This was to preserve famous men for posterity in enamel and Franklin became the most popular subject of this series. This enamel is one of five extant versions, with one in the Gilbert Collection (MIN54A, Victoria and Albert Museum, London) and another in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (inv. NM Khv 601/1895). It has not been possible for art historians to trace the original portrait from which this enamel was taken but it was most likely an ad vivum portrait in pastel, which has been emulated by Weyler in his loose technique. The fine setting for this enamel is most likely contemporary and commissioned for the purpose of housing such an important sitter.

The frame, which is contemporary to the enamel, is full of symbolism the overall theme being that of love, devotion and victory, and was most probably given as a gift to a loved one. The colouring of the frame is made up entirely of enamel, the blues (a symbol of love) and the greens exemplifying the basse-taile technique, whereby decoration is carved from the reverse giving the details great luminosity. The green palms at the top of the frame are a symbol of victory and peace, no doubt an allusion to the end of the American War of Independence, and the cornucopia supported by the doves of Venus reinforces the message of good health and wellbeing. Symbolism of love is seen most evidently in the white enameled ‘true lovers knot’ which forms the outer edge of the frame and which is joined at the top by a bow with pearls - symbolically, the tighter a bow is pulled the stronger the bond created between lovers. The ribbon is seen again in the lower half of the frame, intertwined with forget-me-nots (a symbol of remembrance) and decorated with pearls which are a direct reference again to Venus.
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