Joseph Siffred Duplessis’s 1778 portrait of Benjamin Franklin participates in his carefully constructed image while in France as a plainly dressed American with provincial taste–though he actually dressed in the most expensive fabrics available.
About the Portrait
oseph Siffred Duplessis, born in 1725, was a French artist who was first trained by his father and then by Pierre Subleyras after Duplessis moved to Rome in 1744 at age 19. Duplessis built a reputation as a portraitist and was accepted to the Academie Royale in 1764, where he submitted half-length figure portraits (Bajou). This success led him to become very wealthy, particularly after executing a commissioned portrait of King Louis XVI in 1774 (Fig. 1). Four years later, he accepted the commission for this portrait (The Met).
The sitter, Benjamin Franklin, went to France when he was 51 years old. As the Met explains, in Paris Franklin stayed with Jacques Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, who had a portrait medallion of Franklin made after the signing of the Treaty of 1783 ending the American Revolution. Following which, Le Ray de Chaumont commissioned this painting by Joseph Siffred Duplessis to honor him.
Prior to the finished oil portrait, Duplessis created a similar portrait in pastel, in the same pose and without the fur collar (Fig. 2). As the Met notes, x-rays reveal that the fur collar is a later addition to the oil portrait. This painting was exhibited publicly in the Paris Salon in 1779. It was Duplessis’s most famous work due to the fact that Franklin was extremely popular at the time.
Joseph Siffred Duplessis (French, 1725-1802). Benjamin Franklin, 1778. Oil on canvas; 72.4 x 58.4 cm (28.5 x 23 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 32.100.132. The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. Source: The Met
About the Fashion
n this portrait, Franklin wears an unbuttoned red coat with a fur collar and fur lining; he wears a matching red vest with the top four buttons undone and a white cravat spilling out. The coat is a typical daytime jacket likely made of wool. Franklin would have worn a shirt underneath; these shirts usually came with ruffles at the chest or cuffs. The coat Franklin is wearing is based on English country styles which lacked ornamentation in contrast to French court suits. The cravat in the picture was fashionable and popular neck-wear at that time, but would often be embellished with lace (History.org)–here Franklin adopts a plainer look that the French expected of an American.
As the Met notes in discussing their “Visitors to Versailles” exhibition, “Franklin captivated the French, shamelessly playing to their expectations of Americans, forgoing a wig and dressing in plain, unadorned clothes.” The exhibition included a three-piece suit (habit à la française) quite similar to that Franklin wears in the Duplessis portrait (Fig. 3). The Met notes that:
“it may be the plum-colored silk suit he bought in Paris in 1779, the year he was made American minister to France. The simplicity of dress he became known for was deceiving; tailor bills record luxury suits of vicuña wool, silk, and taffeta. It was the lack of embroidery and the absence of a wig that made Franklin stand out at the court.”
This was a calculated political choice, as is clear by Franklin’s preferred style of dress while earlier in London. As Wikipedia notes of this 1767 portrait of Franklin in London (Fig. 4), he wears “a blue suit with elaborate gold braid and buttons, a far cry from the simple dress he affected at the French court in later years.”
While in Paris, in contrast to even the fashionable British ideal (Fig. 5), Franklin simply wore no wig or powdered hair, and plain, comfortable, even somewhat rumpled clothes. His garments are fuller cut than the slimline that was fashionable. Despite the fact that his manner of dress was not very formal, he was a highly regarded figure and was meant to be portrayed as one.
Compared to the portrait by Duplessis, the portrait by Jean Baptiste Greuze (Fig. 6) is from the same era and has a similarly plain jacket–though now gray–and cravat. Whereas the mezzotint portrait by Charles Wilson Peale (Fig. 7) lacks even the ruffled shirt front or cravat and features Franklin wearing glasses. A later portrait by Joseph Wright seems based upon the Duplessis portrait, but eliminates the fur collar (Fig. 8).
uplessis’s work can be found in an unexpected place in modern society. In 1929, an engraved version of the Duplessis portrait was added to the front of the bill based on a lithograph by Auguste Toussaint Lecler (Figs. 9, 11). In 1996, the portrait was switched with Duplessis’s portrait of the older Benjamin Franklin (Fig. 10), with watermarks and micro-printed lines around and in the design to avoid the issue of counterfeiting (Fig. 12). Thus Duplessis’s most famous portrait still lingers in the modern world.
- “A Colonial Gentlemen’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms.” Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.history.org/history/clothing/men/mglossary.cfm.
- Bajou, Thierry. Duplessis, Joseph-Siffred. Grove Art Online. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/view/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-7000024079.
- “Benjamin Franklin.” Wikipedia, August 3, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Benjamin_Franklin&oldid=853275300.
- Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Emily Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century. Boston: Plays, Inc, 1972. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/873903739.
- “Joseph Siffred Duplessis | Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436236.
- Laver, James, and Iris Brooke. English Costume of the Eighteenth Century. London: A. & C. Black, ltd, 1931. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/664775647.
- “Three-Piece Suit (Habit à La Française) | French | The Met.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed August 12, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/699629.
- “United States One Hundred-Dollar Bill.” Wikipedia, February 21, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=United_States_one_hundred-dollar_bill&oldid=826891927.
- “Visitors to Versailles (1682–1789) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Accessed August 12, 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2018/visitors-to-versailles.