From the Vault: Highlight From the Davison Art Center Collection
In 1778, the 17-year-old Marguerite Gérard (1761–1837) completed an ambitious etching celebrating the American scientist and diplomat Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Titled To the Genius of Franklin (Au Génie de Franklin), this print presents Franklin seated in the clouds, dressed in classical robes, surrounded by allegorical figures representing the American revolution and France’s role in supporting the war. Gérard’s brother-in-law, the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), had designed the complex allegory in a drawing Gérard translated into etched form. She carefully transformed Fragonard’s chalk lines and ink wash brushstrokes into a network of hatched lines on a copper plate, which was then inked and printed. The Davison Art Center collection has an impression of this striking print, which recalls Franklin’s fame in Europe and his role as the leading American commissioner to France, where he successfully negotiated military and commercial treaties between the two countries. In addition, the role of Marguerite Gérard reveals the possibilities for a woman artist in the late 18th century.
Gérard was born in Grasse as the fifth child of a perfume merchant, and was sent at the age of 14 to join the household of her oldest sister, Marie-Anne Fragonard, who had married Jean-Honoré Fragonard in 1769. One of the leading artists of his generation, Fragonard was a member of the Academy and had been awarded an apartment at the Louvre. Female students were barred from the Academy and did not have the opportunity to study the nude model. Nevertheless, Gérard received extensive training from her brother-in-law. She never married and followed a successful career as a painter of family and genre scenes.
On November 15, 1778, the Journal de Paris published an announcement describing the print in detail, and listing its price as 4 livres. The announcement stressed not only the genius of Franklin, but also the ingenuity of Fragonard, author of the allegory, and the skill of Gérard as etcher.
Inscribed on the print are words describing Franklin attributed to Anne-Robert- Jacques Turgot, an economist and reformer. Written in Latin, the phrase “Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis” is usually translated as “He snatched the thunder from the skies and the scepter from tyrants.”
Following this motto, Franklin gestures commandingly towards two figures. His outstretched left arm directs a winged genius, representing France, whose shield protects the figure of America from the lightning bolt in the sky. The bolt of lightning refers to Franklin’s experiments with electricity. Meanwhile, Franklin’s right hand commands a Roman warrior, most likely the god Mars, who strikes down the figure of Avarice, identified by the coins falling from his purse. Below writhes the figure of Tyranny, her sword raised, while her crown slips and the yoke has already fallen. For the French audience, both Avarice and Tyranny represented the despised Great Britain. Amid the chaos, America sits calmly at Franklin’s knee, the bundled rods of the Roman fasces at her hand representing the strength and union of the thirteen colonies.
After his arrival in 1776, Benjamin Franklin became one of the most famous and beloved figures in France, admired for his scientific endeavors and wit. His visage could be found on paintings, sculpture busts, teacups, snuffboxes, and fabric. Indeed the face in Gérard’s print is based on a portrait bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon. For Fragonard, composing such a complex allegory provided an appealing display of his inventiveness. And for Gérard, Franklin was a suitable subject for her first print to be distributed publicly. In 1996, the Davison Art Center purchased this impression with funds raised by the Friends of the Davison Art Center. Today the print tells multiple stories about a young woman artist, her teacher and brother-in-law, and the French admiration for the American revolutionary and scientist, Benjamin Franklin.