paintings of washington and franklin -- 4/27/20

Today's selection -- from Franklin & Washington by Edward J. Larson. Paintings of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin:

"Theirs are the two most recognizable portraits ever painted of any Americans. Benjamin Franklin, his body turned left but face look­ing forward, appears eminently approachable, with a slight grin; loose, flowing hair; and a twinkle in his large, soft eyes. He might have just cracked a joke or told a witty remark to the painter, Joseph Duplessis.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Siffred Duplessis

"George Washington, his shoulders turned right in the original but also facing forward, looks coldly statuesque -- a marble bust -- with tight, drawn lips; formal, powdered hair; and narrow, piercing eyes. He had rebuked the painter, Gilbert Stuart, for suggesting a more informal pose.

"'Now sir, you must let me forget that you are General Washing­ton,' the renowned portraitist breezily offered.

"You need not forget 'who General Washington is,' came the sitter's terse reply.

"These images adorn America's two most widely circulated banknotes: Stuart's 1796 Athenaeum portrait of Washington (flipped to turn left) on the ubiquitous American one-dollar bill and Duplessis's 1785 painting of Franklin on the widely hoarded hundred. Together, they account for more than three-fifths of all U.S. banknotes in circulation, with 'Franklins' constituting some 80 percent of the total value of all American paper money.

"Franklin's portrait expands beyond the bill's borders -- his ex­pressive face looking fleshy and open. Clearly aged, Franklin nevertheless appears vibrant and alive. 'He ... possesses an ac­tivity of mind equal to a youth of 25,' a fellow delegate said of the eighty-one-year-old Franklin at the Constitutional Convention, two years after the picture was painted.

George Washington ("Lansdowne" portrait),
Gilbert Stuart, 1796

"Washington, in con­trast, glares out from a tight central oval on the one-dollar bill, his craggy, colorless visage looking like a plaster mask animated only by those intense eyes, which Stuart painted as bluer than they re­ally were. Once told that his expression showed emotion, Wash­ington shot back, 'You are wrong. My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings!' Stuart saw something in that face, how­ever. 'All his features,' the painter commented, 'were indicative of the strongest and most ungovernable passions.' Yet Washing­ton governed them with a granite, tight-lipped self-control that made him the stoic father figure for a nation that adopted Frank­lin as its favorite uncle. Together, they midwifed a republic.

"Stamped on the national consciousness as the definitive repre­sentation of the episode it captures, Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States conveys the enduring sense that Franklin and Washington stood at the crossroads of American history and shaped its course. Commis­sioned by Congress during the Great Depression, this historical painting artfully arranges the Constitution's thirty-seven other signers in imaged poses around Franklin and Washington in­side Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Of all the delegates, only Franklin, seated at center, looks directly forward, as if to engage modern viewers. Alexander Hamilton leans in to catch his ear. Half obscured at Franklin's side, James Madison looks up toward Washington, who stands in near profile on a dais to the viewer's right, head and shoulders above the other signers as he gazes be­yond them, as if to some distant shore.

"Here too, as in their individual portraits, the blue-garbed Frank­lin appears warm and gregarious while the black-suited Washington looks cold and aloof. Ignoring their placement on the canvas, the painting's official key, supplied to identify those pictured, desig­nates Washington by the number 1, Franklin by 2, Madison 3, and Hamilton 4. Others follow in an order that seemingly reflects their relative contributions to the nation's founding. If so, then pairing Franklin and Washington at top perpetuates the popular view.

"Of all the public art linking and extolling the two principal founders, surely the most dramatic is The Apotheosis of Washing­ton. Situated in the concave apex or 'eye' of the U.S. Capitol's rotunda, the painting depicts Washington in flowing robes rising to heaven flanked by the goddesses of liberty and victory along with thirteen classically garbed maidens. A rainbow descending toward earth from Washington's feet alights on the shoulder of Franklin, who is toiling in the garden of science and invention. At more than twice their actual heights and looking fit, Washing­ton and Franklin are the largest historical figures in the picture and portrayed so as to be recognizable by viewers looking upward from some 180 feet below on the rotunda floor. Painted in the true fresco technique by Vatican artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865 at the end of the Civil War, the circular canopy, which is more than 200 feet in circumference, captures the historical consensus of a remote godlike Washington and a pragmatic earth-bound Frank­lin towering over the nation's founding."



Edward J. Larson


Franklin & Washington


William Morrow


Copyright 2020 by Edward Larson


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