Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 5, 2000
Brandon Fortune and Deborah Warner Franklin and His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in 18th-Century America University of Pennsylvania Press in association with National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1999. 178 pp.; 54 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (0812217012)
National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., April 16–September 6, 1999.
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Franklin & His Friends: Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America is an ambitious exhibition and catalogue that examines the role of portraiture in the world of natural and physical science in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The selection of Franklin as a focal point for the study was a meaningful way to focus a considerable body of artistic and archival material. In one way or another Franklin’s life intersected with that of each of the other figures represented in the portraits selected for examination individually and collectively. Perhaps the most interesting assertion made by the authors is that painted and engraved portraits were key in defining “the ‘international republic of science’ and the relationships forged therein.” Portraits did this through their imagery and the ways in which people displayed and distributed them. Support for this argument is built through close readings of portraits, development of histories for particular conventions and attributes, and analysis of archival sources that inform the precise circumstances of particular commissions.

Fortune and Warner trace the history of representations of scientific men from the Renaissance in Europe to about 1810 in America. They show that relatively few men were portrayed in scholarly pursuits in the Renaissance, but such subjects became increasingly popular with the English Baroque Lely-Kneller school of the late seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century, English gentlemen and aristocrats found that collections of natural history specimens and expensive scientific instruments, memberships in learned societies, and portraits of oneself as a man of science had become markers of gentility and refinement.

Portraiture in the eighteenth century conveyed much more than likeness through a complex set of tools that included poses, gestures, costumes, attributes, and facial expressions. While no manuals were published in the colonies to coach aspiring artists here, portraitists had access to London publications such as Roger de Piles’s Principles of Painting (translated from French in 1743) and Jonathan Richardson’s An Essay on the Theory of Painting (1715). Such treatises urged artists to capture the biography and character, not simply the appearance, of a sitter. American artists also learned current conventions of portraiture through imported engravings, trips to Europe, and from contact with artists educated abroad who moved to the colonies. Franklin & His Friends provides an in-depth study of the ways in which that training and those devices were applied to portraits of scientific men.

Eighteenth-century American portraits of scientists include attributes of learning, scholarly poses drawn from the traditional allegorical representation of melancholia, and clothing associated with intellectual life to convey the life of a sitter. Common attributes of studious men included pens, papers, books, and documents, which were simultaneously emblematic of studiousness and carefully chosen to convey specific biographical references to the sitter’s writings or interests. Scientific instruments, too, were often the very ones used by the person portrayed. For example, John Singleton Copley depicted John Winthrop with a reflecting telescope made by London instrument maker James Short. That telescope was used by Winthrop in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus, a subject on which Winthrop published, and was part of his legacy to Harvard University. The exhibition of these portraits was greatly enriched by the inclusion of the very instruments owned by and portrayed with the sitters as well as examples of their letters, scientific notes, and publications.

Pose and costume were also important for depicting a person as a man of science. Fortune and Warner trace the pose of hand-on-face, paired with an expression of deep thought, to Dürer’s engraving of the allegory of melancholy, noting the common association between this subject and older, scholarly men. Though scientific men were often represented wearing clothes that did not contain references to their intellectual lives, others were painted wearing an academic robe or banyan, a loose-fitting, informal garment often made of silk. To the latter costume the authors devote a particularly thorough examination, tracing the banyan (and the cap frequently worn with it) from seventeenth-century England to eighteenth-century America. By the end of the eighteenth century, American portraitists began to move away from characterization with things to a physiognomic approach. In the latter mode, the features of the face were thought to convey everything that needed to be said about a person, whereas letters, books, and instruments were regarded as distracting clutter. Formats shifted from longer ones to bust lengths, again to focus attention on the head, and in keeping with the teachings of the Swiss theorist Johann Caspar Lavater, profiles entered the artistic vocabulary as the truest view of one’s character as revealed by physiognomy.

In addition to viewing portraits in relation to the individuals they represent, Franklin & His Friends explores the social meanings of paintings and engravings in constructing an international republic of letters. A man gained entrance into this republic not by his socioeconomic status, Fortune and Warner argue, but by his acumen and achievements. For instance, David Rittenhouse—Philadelphia’s preeminent astronomer, mathematician, and maker of fabulously complex orreries—gained respect through his abilities and creations. He was a mechanic, the eighteenth-century term for a skilled craftsman, not a formally educated or wealthy man. Fortune and Warner also assert that the American republic of letters was a means of breaking down racial boundaries, as in the admission of Benjamin Banneker, the son of a freed slave, who borrowed instruments from the wealthy Ellicott family in Maryland. Banneker not only published a series of almanacs, but also used those publications to refute Thomas Jefferson’s assertions of the innate inferiority of his race.

Oil portraits created for private display in the home performed their social function narrowly, whereas those commissioned for public consumption and engravings published for distribution served broadly to shape the republic of letters. Mezzotints, stipple engravings, line engravings, and woodcuts were printed as separate sheets and as frontispieces to books, which scholars exchanged along with ideas, observations, specimens, and publications. Fortune and Warner do a remarkable job of tracing the dissemination of those images, citing letters presenting and appreciating gifts of engravings that cemented intellectual relationships among men who sometimes never saw one another in person. By the end of the eighteenth century, men of science could see the prominent members of their community in such exclusive institutions as universities and learned societies. At about that time, commemoration and exemplification became important republican principles, and the general public could now admire the visages of the great minds of their day at Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia and similar displays in other American cities. As with the political celebration of life and liberty that accompanied the Revolution, intellectual opportunities became available to a wider spectrum of the people.

Franklin & His Friends is a welcome contribution to the field, for the thoroughness and specificity of its arguments. Whenever possible, the authors support their interpretations and claims with archival material related directly to the portraits and sitters about whom they are writing. In the richness of its interpretations, the project moves beyond earlier scholarship on portraits of Franklin and those around him, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition and catalogue, Franklin and His Circle (1936), and Charles Coleman Sellers’s book, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (New Haven and London, 1962).

While Fortune and Warner argue that the loose network of men devoted to learning admitted a remarkable spectrum of society, it seems equally noteworthy that many more were excluded and that within that world of science the ranks were highly stratified. The authors admit that women were entirely omitted from the collective portrait, though a handful of women pursued scientific knowledge in the eighteenth century. They also grant that a very small percentage of Americans sat for portraits at all, but point to the range of society from Benjamin Banneker to David Rittenhouse and Benjamin Franklin as evidence that socioeconomic status and even race were penetrable barriers to those aspiring to achieve in science. Surely each one of those men was honored with a portrait, but embedded within those paintings and engravings is a hierarchy.

At the bottom rung is Banneker’s portrait, a simple woodcut. It is extraordinary that his likeness was preserved and circulated, but poignant that the image is relatively crude. Despite the authors’ claims that Rittenhouse was “neither college-educated nor well-to-do… he was an artisan” (43), he was hardly a struggling mechanic. His property was assessed at 1161 pounds in 1794 (Philadelphia County Tax Assessment Ledgers, Philadelphia City Archives), placing him among the wealthiest 10 percent of his community. Rittenhouse, in contrast to the modest graphic portrait of Banneker, was painted, according to Charles Willson Peale scholar Charles Coleman Sellers, seven times (including two miniatures) by Philadelphia’s leading portraitist. The last of Peale’s portraits was engraved for distribution in a fine mezzotint by Edward Savage, and Rittenhouse was also painted by another leading artist of the Revolutionary era, John Trumbull. Franklin occupied a still higher rung on the social and economic ladders. Arguably, the proliferation of images of Franklin is a measure of his greater achievement, but it also reflects his unequal ability to sponsor his own protracted public relations campaign, which was further fueled by admiration from others. Indeed, the very model of the show—Franklin and those around him—perpetuates the hierarchy of men of science in the eighteenth century that America’s savant helped to construct. Of course, Franklin was a great thinker, and one could gain a place in the republic of letters with borrowed books and instruments. And while the boundary of the circle of learning was fluid, passage was substantially easier for men than women, for whites than African Americans, and for those who came from families with wealth and social standing than those who did not. In short, Fortune and Warner accept too easily the Revolutionary ideal that achievement was a leveling force in the early republic.

David R. Brigham
Worcester Art Museum

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