Portrait print of Benjamin Franklin (Cochin/St Aubin), 1777
Collection of Stuart E....
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Collection of Stuart E. Karu. Photo by Peter Harholdt

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After a drawing by Cochin, not known to be extant. The original etched and engraved copperplate is owned by Yale University, William Smith Mason Collection.

The engraving employs the "porthole" convention, with the image of the subject seen as though through an architectural aperture -- in this case an oval opening with a moulded rim, and a title or caption that appears to be cut into an applied table or plaque positioned below the opening. The artist carries the architectural conceit further by suggesting light falling on the image from an angle, creating varied shadows.

The engraving depicts a head-and shoulder-length portrait of Franklin, facing toward the right edge of the sheet. He wears a fur cap, spectacles, and cloth suit with, apparently, cloth-covered buttons, and a severe neck cloth.

The artist has given his subject vitality by showing him shifting his gaze slightly to glance at the viewer, looking beyond the rim of his spectacles.

This print was one of the first available French images of Franklin. The Journal de Paris announced its publication and the court paper Le Mercure de France discussed it. Franklin sent one of the prints to his family in the summer of 1777. It shows him with a fur cap that he wore in the winter of 1776-77. This headgear attracted the notice of the French public, who associated it with a hat worn by the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). In part because of favorable early French reactions to his simple manner of dressing, Franklin did not adopt the more formal costume of an ambassador, except for court appearances. Some related his garb to that of French men of letters and others to American Quaker clothing. Several states of the engraving survive.

Along the lower edge of the print is the credit: C.N. Cochin filius delin. 1777. Aug. de St. Aubin Sculp./ Dessiné par C.N. Cochin chevalier de l'Ordre du Roi, en 1777, et Gravé par Aug. de St. Aubin Graveur de la Bibliotheque du Roi.

It was not a formal portrait and was never repeated on canvas as such by any artist of established reputation. Copies and adaptations were made without number and in every imaginable medium, but almost all of small size and a transient character: prints, ceramics, watch faces, and the like.

The earliest dated engraving after it is by Johann Christian Gottfried Fritsch, Hamburg, 1778. In a curious allegorical print published anonymously in May 1779, Le Tombeau de Voltaire, the motif of fur cap and spectacles is carried out in a full-length figure, semi-nude, bow in hand, and so made to represent the savage nobility of the American continent. The end of its news interest is marked by the publication around 1780 of an altered copy of it engraved by Pierre Adrien Le Beau (an example of which is shown in Sellers. Pl. 10) after a drawing by Claude Louis Desrais (1746-1816), two minor artists of the time. Some 15 years later the Desrais engraving was readapted to the taste of the revolutionary era in a popular color print by an artist known only as Citoyenne F. Montalant. Other interpretations include one made in London and in Augsberg, Germany (by I. Elias Haid, 1780). Copies after Desrais are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997-28-14 and 1997-28-6.

Multiple examples of the Saint Aubin print exist; owners include:
Stuart E. Karu (private collection)
Philadelphia Museum of Art (1946-51-138 and 1985-52-1898)
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (NPG.69.30) (by Johann Martin Will); another in the Smithsonian/NPG collection is by William Harrison, Jr. (S/NPG.77.83)
The Franklin Institute also owns one by Will.

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