Benjamin Franklin 1706-1790
Just before returning to America in 1762, Benjamin Franklin sat for his portrait to British artist Mason Chamberlin; this painting highlights some of his electrical experiments and inventions. The portrait, commissioned by Philip Ludwell III, and the mezzotint done after it, were favorites with Franklin for years. Chamberlin painted Franklin seated in his study during an evening thunderstorm, listening intently to the ringing of two small bells beside his chair. An iron lightning rod is pictured on a chimney outside the window; it protects Franklin's house, but it also brings the charge into his presence. The bells and the lightning rod were invented by Franklin. As he wrote in his Experiments and Observations on Electricity (one edition of which was published in 1762), "In September 1752, I erected an Iron Rod to draw the Lightning down into my House, in order to make some Experiments on it, with two Bells to give Notice when the Rod should be electrified." The painting also shows two small cork balls, electrified and thus repelled. The background view painted into the window in Franklin's portrait is not meant to be an actual cityscape. The exploding house and toppling steeple are more likely to be references to the small models used in scientific lectures and demonstrations. Franklin, surrounded by his inventions and in a space that is quite literally electric, is the personification of controlled energy, calm and observant in the face of a storm.