Benjamin Franklin in France

Benjamin Franklin in France

  • Franklin claims rights over the American colonies from Louis XVI

    HEALY George Peter Alexander (1813 - 1894)

  • Benjamin Franklin at the court of France

    OVEREND GELLER William (1804 - 1881)

Franklin claims rights over the American colonies before Louis XVI

© American Philosophical Society

Benjamin Franklin at the court of France

© RMN-Grand Palais (Château de Blérancourt) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: January 2020

CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language

Historical context

The painting by the American painter George Peter Alexander Healy (1808-1894), a pupil of Gros in France, was commissioned by King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) dating from 1847. Seventy years after the events, Healy chose to represent a momentous moment in the history of the United States and in the life of Franklin: the presentation of the American minister to the King of France on March 20, 1778, one month after the signing of two treaties of alliance, trade and friendship between the two States on February 6, 1778. As for the English engraver William Overend (1804-1881), he reproduced in 1853 a painting by the Belgian painter André Jolly (1799-1883) which evokes the reception of Franklin by the royal family of France, March 22, 1778, during which, in the presence of the Court, the Minister Plenipotentiary is presented to Marie-Antoinette.

Image Analysis

Healy chose to represent the moment when Franklin and Louis XVI sealed an alliance against England, which allowed the American colonies to continue their struggle against the metropolis. Departing from Philadelphia in September 1776, Franklin arrived in December 1776 in Paris, where he conducted negotiations with the French government with the American Republic which had proclaimed its independence on July 4, 1776. The scene takes place at the Palace of Versailles, in the Throne Room. Louis XVI, who harbored a deep aversion to the American and to Republican ideas, listened to Franklin expound on the claims of the American colonies, enshrined in the treaty which he pointed to with his right hand. Behind him are the two other commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. Two other men whose role was fundamental in the Franco-American negotiations are also represented: Beaumarchais, in the right corner of the painting, and the Comte de Vergennes, standing behind the king. Healy plays on the contrast between the luxury of the throne and its canopy of purple and gold, the sumptuousness of the court's costumes and the legendary simplicity of Franklin, in a black coat, shoes without buckles, without a wig: an appearance exterior which made the scientist famous.

Another aspect of Franklin's notoriety in France is mentioned in the Overend engraving. We celebrate the genius who unraveled the mystery of lightning and electricity. Although the king and queen are present, Franklin is the hero of this scene, crowned with laurels by Diane de Polignac. Seated apart, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI observe the scene with detachment. This engraving recalls that Franklin, a friend of Lavoisier's and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences since 1772, had been very popular with the women of the Parisian aristocracy when he moved to Passy at the beginning of 1777.

Interpretation

Franklin's stay in France, which lasted until July 1785, left great memories on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. After the stay of the United States Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, a "Franklin myth" was born in the 1780s. His death in 1790 gave rise to celebrations to honor the defender of freedom and the scholar who dominated nature: Mirabeau paid a vibrant tribute to the hero of American independence, the embodiment of the spirit of the Enlightenment. Healy’s painting and Overend’s engraving helped perpetuate this myth in nineteenth-century France, particularly under the July Monarchy.

Sponsor of Healy's painting, the “bourgeois king” Louis-Philippe, son of the regicide Philippe Egalité, had rubbed shoulders with Mirabeau and La Fayette in 1790 at the Jacobins club. Then he had traveled to the United States between 1796 and 1799 and had met George Washington there. Thirty years later, after the fall of Charles X, he was invested in August 1830 by La Fayette himself before founding a constitutional monarchy, reflecting his liberal aspirations. In these two images, the memory of Franklin, “benefactor of humanity”, is combined with the evocation of the Franco-American alliance since 1776. We can read there the symbol of the passage from an Ancien Régime declining to a new world, embodied by sage Franklin, dressed in his ragged clothes and facing, with calm and assurance, the absolute monarch.

  • american independence
  • Franklin (Benjamin)
  • Louis XVI
  • United States
  • Louis Philippe
  • Marie Antoinette
  • England
  • Versailles
  • Polignac (Diane de)
  • Lavoisier (Antoine)
  • Academy of Sciences
  • Mirabeau (Honoré Gabriel Riqueti from
  • Washington (George)
  • La Fayette (Marquis of)

Bibliography

Claude Fohlen, Benjamin Franklin, The American of the Enlightenment, Payot, 2000.

Axel Poniatowski, Cécile Maisonneuve, Benjamin Franklin, Perrin, 2008.

To cite this article

Christophe CORBIER, "Benjamin Franklin in France"


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