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Portrait Medallion of Benjamin Franklin

Date: ca. 1778-1800
Dimensions:
3 1/2 x 3 1/2 x 3/8 in. (8.9 x 8.9 x 1 cm.)
Medium: unglazed and glazed hard-paste biscuit porcelain, gilding
Credit Line: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Inscription: The reverse is painted in blue enamel with the crossed Ls of the Sèvres manufactory above the letter g
Object Number: 61.2
Label Text:France formally recognized the independence of the United States of America in 1777, and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), the American envoy to the French court at Versailles from 1776 to 1785, was received there by Louis XVI on March 20, 1778 (see cat. 142). At this time, Sèvres introduced objects with Franklin's profile painted in grisaille and produced portrait busts and medallions of the statesman. Such medallions, costing between 6 and 12 livres each, first appear in the Sèvres sales records in late 1778 and hundreds were eventually sold. Indeed, Franklin himself seems to have kept a supply of them to give as souvenirs. This model was the most successful of the Franklin portraits produced at Sèvres. Versions after it were made by Wedgwood and other manufactories, and it continued to be produced at Sèvres into the twentieth century.
This medallion of unglazed (biscuit) porcelain with a glazed and gilded edge represents Franklin's profile facing right, hair covering his ear, and with four buttons of his coat showing. The earliest known example of this model, in a French private collection, is dated AA for 1778. It is also marked with the crossed Ls of the royal Sèvres manufactory with a crown above for hard paste. The Huntington example is not as elaborately marked, indicating that it was probably made slightly later. It is marked with the letter g, which may be for the decorator Léopold Weydinger (1757-1806) or a member of his family, who worked as gilders at Sèvres from the 1770s through the 1790s. This indicates that it was made between 1778 and 1800. The same portrait in reverse is painted in grisaille on a cup of c. 1779 now at Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Washington, D. C. A slightly different painted version of the profile is also known with the head hunched forward, the ear exposed, and only three buttons on the coat.
A plaster model of the four-button profile medallion remains at Sèvres. It is probably after a terra-cotta medallion by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Battista (Jean-Baptiste) Nini (1717-1786). A terra-cotta relief bust by Nini of the same model enclosed within a glass medallion also survives at Sèvres. An engraver, Nini moved to Paris in 1758 and began to produce portrait medallions. A friend of Franklin's, Jacques Donatien Le Ray, appointed Nini as superintendent of his ceramic and glass workshops at the château of Chaumont-sur-Loire in 1772; however, Nini was permitted to pursue independent artistic work, particularly the production of terra-cotta portrait medallions. His portrait medallions of Franklin are among his best-known works (for an example, see cat. 195). This model was evidently inspired by the terra-cotta portrait bust of Franklin by the French sculptor Jean-Jacques Caffiéri (1725-1792) that was exhibited at the Salon of 1777 (see cat. 164). Although the details of the costume differ, the right profile of the bust (fig. 00) is remarkably similar to that of the medallion, especially the rendering of the hair, suggesting it to be the source for this likeness.

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