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  • Franklin and His Friends. Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America
  • Ralph R. Bauer
Franklin and His Friends. Portraying the Man of Science in Eighteenth-Century America. Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C. (16 April–6 September, 1999). Catalogue ed. by Brandon Brame Fortune with Deborah J. Warner (Philadelphia: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in association with the University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999). Pp. 178. 142 ill. $42 cloth.

What did it mean to be a “man of science” during the eighteenth century, before the professionalization of experimental investigation? How did one become a “man of science” in America, far from the traditional centers of European learning? For what purpose did men interested in science have their portraits taken and engraved? And why did they attach them to their polite correspondence in their epistolary commerce? These were some of the questions addressed by a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and its accompanying catalogue. Focusing on portraits that “clearly reveal the sitter’s scientific interest,” the curators of this exhibit and authors of the catalogue have provided documentation of the socio-cultural and art-historical context of the intrinsic imagery of these portraits, as well as of their creation and reception. Portraiture, they argue, played a crucial role in the invention of what Benjamin Rush called “the republic of science”—a community of correspondents whose members belonged, regardless of place of birth or political inclination, “to the same family.” Prints of engraved portraits displayed in the galleries of private homes were thus intended to represent this scientific family across geographic, cultural, and economic boundaries throughout the eighteenth-century transatlantic world. They “situate[d] each sitter not only within his local community; but across cultural, economic, and geographic boundaries to fix him within the international community of science. The identity presented in each portrait is both individual [End Page 284] and collective; that is, such men aligned themselves with others who were investigating the natural world, and wished to express this collective identity through portraiture” (2). In America, the exchange of engraved portraits played an especially important role by representing the aspirant to scientific persona, often from the middling classes, to the exclusive epistolary circles of “friends” and “philosophical societies” still predominantly centered in Europe. Even men without formal education, such as David Rittenhouse, could thus create themselves as “men of science” with international repute. Women, on the other hand, were rarely represented within the republic of science, despite the notable scientific accomplishments of some specimen of “fascinated widows” (as John Bartram put it), such as the botanist Martha Logan or Jane Colden.

The sitters’ pose and costume, as well as the portraits’ setting and props, were all carefully chosen with the purpose of identifying the subject as a man of science. Thus, he typically appears as a solitary figure in a secluded and dark space, surrounded by books, his head supported by his hand in order to signify the action of his mind and his contemplative, studious life. Often, he is wearing a “banyan,” a type of orientalist gown of (east) Indian origin, indicating the wearer’s status as a man of leisure. Equal in importance to pose, setting, and costume was the representation of specific instruments and tools, such as the Gregorian reflecting telescope, which were available only to men of considerable wealth and to (ex-) colonials with good connections to the London instrument trade through middlemen such as Franklin. Little wonder, then, that sometimes, as in the case of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of College-of-Pennsylvania teacher William Smith (ca. 1800), the curators have not found any evidence that the sitter actually owned the scientific instrument with which he is represented in his portrait. Interestingly, while these objects still seem to have played an important role in identifying the man of science during the latter part of the eighteenth century, the importance attributed to them apparently diminished after the turn of the century, yielding to more attention paid to detail in the sitters’ countenance and thus revealing a growing interest in physiognomy and phrenology, as well as a Romantic conception of intelligence, in artists such as Rembrandt Peale and Charles Willson...

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pp. 284-286
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