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In the eighteenth century, science was not yet a specialized, professional discipline; the term "scientist" was not even coined until 1833. And yet the physical and natural sciences had developed into well-defined bodies of knowledge. David MartinSerious investigators aligned themselves with colleagues in "philosophical societies" and through correspondence to form an elite corps of like-minded men, bound through their interest in experiment and study. Americans were well aware of their isolation from European, particularly British, centers of learning. Imported books and instruments of science were rare and expensive. Correspondence, often painstakingly cultivated and carefully delivered through friends traveling to distant towns or abroad, kept "bright the chain of friendship" that helped scientific ideals to flourish.

"Franklin & His Friends" presents portraits of men who, regardless of their actual vocation, shared a passion for science. Their portraits document their scientific accomplishments, in the pursuit of which they invested time, energy, and money. Men of science in America were a diverse group in background, wealth, and vocation. They were educators, physicians, planters, wealthy men with time for scientific work, those who used science for their business mariners, instrument makers, surveyors, and mapmakers and those, like Benjamin Franklin, who made science the focus of a public reputation. Franklin's electrical experiments and observations were communicated first through letters, which were edited and published in 1751. He became famous throughout Europe and the colonies long before he began his political and diplomatic career. His 1762 portrait by London artist Mason Chamberlin celebrates his electrical inventions.

Portraiture is both factual and fictive. Some degree of likeness was always expected of a portraitist. But artists could also draw on a stock of available images traditional representational constructs, as well as contemporary objects and costumes in order to present sitters as they would wish to be seen. Portraits are central to our understanding of the social construction of personal identity, of how people presented themselves in a social context.

The portraits selected for this exhibition reveal that in spite of their diversity of background, American men of science and the artists who portrayed them often chose similar poses, costumes, and attributes. These portraits construct a scientific identity for the subject. They situate each sitter not only within his local community, but across cultural, economic, and geographical boundaries to fix him within the international republic of science. Many portraits emphasize the contemplative life and draw their imagery from conventions used for intellectuals. Some include highly specific attributes or tools (books and instruments) or products of the sitter's scientific work.

Benjamin Franklin / David Martin / Oil on canvas / Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Past Exhibitions | National Portrait Gallery Home

The Republic of Science
Portraiture and the Tools of Science
Science and Liberty