An Audience for Revolution

John Haber
in New York City

Benjamin Franklin: Portraits by Duplessis

John Singer Sargent: A Family Portrait

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France, he had turned seventy, but his nation was newly born. As a commissioner of the Continental Congress, he reached Paris in late December 1776, as America's first diplomat abroad, in search of recognition and support.

It came swiftly, too, with a treaty of alliance in early 1778, but not altogether smoothly. The French scuttled plans to send officers and further aid to the revolutionary cause when the English threatened war. Joseph Siffred Duplessis's Benjamin Franklin (New York Public Library, 1777)Franklin, though, was determined to stick it out, and he remained until 1785, by which time the United States had attained not just independence, but a constitution. And he found a tool for his diplomacy in art. With just three works positively drowning in wall text, an installation at the Met looks less focused than unfinished. Yet it suggests why the aristocracy and an emerging republic found common ground in art.

John Singer Sargent delighted in attention, too, as an American abroad, and he got it. More than a century after Franklin, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children earned praise in all the right places, including a review from Henry James. It drew scorn for "these over-civilised European Orientals," meaning Jews, and caricatures by Max Beerbohm of both Carl Meyer and Sargent. Of the two, the artist appears more boastful and more stylish. It provoked outright parodies, playing on the children with no evident place to stand and their mother, Adèle, perched so precariously as to have already fallen off the sofa. It cemented a bond between the painter and the family, strong enough that he returned to the girl in charcoal eight years later as a beautiful and intelligent woman.

The temper of America

In today's heady mix of art and money, someone more cynical than Ben Franklin might suggest that a museum simply display the money. Sure enough, the Met does, but it also has the art to back it up. If a portrait from the permanent collection looks familiar, it graced the hundred dollar bill for much of the last century. And if a pastel on loan from the New York Public Library looks familiar as well, at least to those who can afford to carry a c-note, its image replaced the other on the bill in 1996. Franklin owed both to Joseph Siffred Duplessis, the official portraitist to the French king, and they are the center of a "focus exhibition" that could almost make a case for a sedate but skilled artist. Befitting both portraiture and money, the show is also about popularity, circulation, and reproduction—in the cause of revolution.

Franklin had no trouble finding support. The French already embraced the Revolutionary War, in hopes of regaining influence in North America, and the Marquis de Lafayette had signed on as general just two weeks before his arrival, thanks to the diplomacy of Silas Deane. Nor do their motives reduce so easily to vanity and self-interest. Lafayette, who later supported the French revolution, saw Americans as "people fighting for liberty." Just as much, too, France found a role model in Franklin himself. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, painter to the French court, saw in him "the temper and conduct of America."

He and his country, on the borders of what Europe counted as civilization, embodied at once dignity and simplicity. He had earned that reputation at home as an elder statesman capable of leadership, serious experiments in the sciences, equally serious journalism, and yet also the appealing sayings of Poor Richard's Almanack. If it seems hypocritical for royalty to care, remember the fashion for peasant manners and dress even on the part of Marie Antoinette. And if it seems hypocritical for America to be playing up to Louis XVI, it had a war to win. There may be a moral in there somewhere for American revolutionaries today. Franklin settled in Passy, between Paris and Versailles, for greater access to both people and king.

He also sat for portraits, from a good half dozen painters, to get his image out there. He saw it as an ordeal, the Met comments, which explains why he preferred not to sit for any painter more than once. That explains, too, his appearance in the pastel in 1777, quite as much as his fabled simplicity. He sits with quite literally his hair down, without a wig and in a plain gray coat without a collar. His shirt protrudes from a half-buttoned waistcoat, and his eyes dart casually and alertly to the right. This being the roots of Neoclassicism in art, his dress blends into the shallow but indefinite background, itself much grayer than in reproduction, and the touches of gray on his face could represent either shadow or the need for a shave.

Already, though, Duplessis is idealizing, by rubbing with a blunt instrument or his fingers to smooth out his only known pastel, by minimizing the gray in Franklin's hair, and by dwelling on the marks of intelligence in his sitter's high forehead, tall eye sockets, steady jaw, cleft chin, and pursed lips. When he turns to the Met's portrait the next year, he layers that idealization on. Franklin's pupils rise to the center of his eyes, and his entire head rises from a bulkier warm red coat—all topped by a fur collar with its cords flung aside. A gilded oak frame layers it on that much more, with a wreath and a rattlesnake, as twin emblems of an American hero. The Latin inscription, VIR, means merely man, but with much the same overtones as for Barnett Newman in Abstract Expressionist New York with Vir Heroicus Sublimus (or "man the sublime hero"). The Met uses radiography to confirm that the pastel served as a model for the painting, with the fur collar a final added touch.

The portrait in fur took off, inspiring dozens of copies—and not just in France. Thomas Jefferson commissioned a replica by another artist, and the Met displays one of its own, attributed to the workshop of Duplessis himself. It had to come from the workshop because the composition and features line up almost exactly with the original, and it could not come from Duplessis because of its flat execution, muddled lips, and mechanical clarity. A drawing on translucent paper over glass would have traced the pastel, and incisions could then transfer the drawing to canvas. A more or less tolerable Salon artist may seem an implausible source for America's self-image. Yet when Franklin died in 1790, he knew that the image was in circulation.

Falling for Modernism

One might expect the display of a single painting as part of the Jewish Museum's "Masterpieces and Curiosities" from its collection, like The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz last winter. Actually, the series now focuses instead on a Hanukkah lamp by Peter Shire, of Italy's Memphis design group. Like Adèle Meyer at home in London, Memphis has its roots everywhere. It includes Shire, an American, with tilted planes in bright colors like the Bauhaus brought to LA. A candle would look in danger of tumbling off, much like Meyer as seen from below. Meanwhile Sargent's 1896 portrait is on loan from Tate Britain and once again a center of attention.

 John Singer Sargent's Mrs. Carl Meyer and Her Children (Tate Britain, 1896)Its display at the Jewish Museum is all about its reception. One might go expecting related paintings and studies, and the room does include portraits of Carl Meyer and his son, by others, in a manner more suited to a nineteenth-century library than to a modern museum. It has a photograph of the couple, but a quarter century after the painting. Mostly, though, it shows Meyer as a man of means, a German Jew who had become a British citizen, an aristocrat, and a representative of the London House of Rothschild—with the badge of a baronet and a silver cigarette case. And it attests to the artist as a man of his time and place as well. That only starts with the quote from James high on the wall.

It makes sense that James admired Sargent. As Americans abroad, both navigated realism and high society. Both, too, made their art a tour de force. Just listen to James. Writing in Harper's Weekly, he praised the painter's "knock-down insolence of talent and truth of characterization, a wonderful rendering of life, of manners, of aspects, of types, of textures, of everything." The line moves from a touch of slang to a hint of the complex syntax in his own late novels.

Sargent can seem at once terribly old-fashioned and precociously modern. He pays tribute to a woman's fashion while upending fashion. e wanted a portrait that could match Francisco de Goya, who did well by children, or Thomas Gainsborough—who saw his art as a "dialogue with nature." Yet Sargent also wanted to push painting toward self-reflection. The settee's upholstery shows a rural boy and girl after Rococo painting. They appear directly below the actual children, and who is to say who is commenting on whom?

The painting's reception suggests art's new place in the public eye. An artist still needs a patron, a role that Adèle embraced to the fullest, but his critics range from The Times of London to a woman's magazine. James also tells more than he intends by his extravagant praise. He attests not just to the artist's strengths, but also to their shared standards. Sargent is no longer after Renaissance idealization or Baroque movement, and he is not yet after art for art's sake. He is in the game for characterization, manners, texture, and excess—and so is much of the public today.

No wonder New York never seems to lack for an exhibition of John Singer Sargent. He gets at psychology through the reaching of hands between mother and daughter, connected and apart while encompassing the shyer son. As for manners, the shimmer of the mother's dress echoes even in the pages of a book, reducing its letters to a clash of pink and green. The perspective that destabilizes them all may have the last word. It brings the mother closer and the children further from the viewer, in paired triangles right up against the painting's borders. It contributes at once to psychology, to manners, and to art.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Benjamin Franklin: Portraits by Duplessis" ran The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 28, 2016, John Singer Sargent at the Jewish Museum, through February 5, 2017.

 

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