Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790
After the Revolution, Franklin returned to Philadelphia from France, and was immediately pressed back into public service, as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. One of his visitors praised "the brightness of his memory, and clearness and vivacity of all his mental faculties," but by 1789, Franklin was very ill. In July, the American Philosophical Society commissioned this portrait from Charles Willson Peale. Peale found Franklin too weak to pose. He made a copy of his 1785 life portrait and returned to Franklin's bedside to finish it, but "his pain was so great that he could sit only 1/4 hour."
The painting focuses on Franklin's earlier experiments with electricity and his invention of the lightning rod. He holds the tip of a pointed rod (the type he favored) in his hand, while a rod terminating with a round knob lies on the table before him. Copied onto the paper beside the inkwell is a passage about lightning rods from his Experiments and Observations on Electricity. While in London Franklin had opposed knobs on lightning rods, calling them dangerous. By the mid-1770s, the controversy was entirely political; King George installed rods with knobs on his palace, which disgusted Franklin. Thus Franklin's pointed rods had developed nationalistic connotations, and Peale's portrait marks him as an American man of science.
Title image: Culpeper-type microscope/ Courtesy National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.