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As Ben's Birthday Approaches: A Look at the Many Faces of Franklin at the University of Pennsylvania

January 10, 2012, Volume 58, No. 17

Does anyone really know where Ben is located on campus? Or how many likenesses of him are to be found outdoors and indoors? Penn has nearly 50 works of art depicting Penn’s founder, according to the office of the University Curator which is responsible for Penn’s vast art collection.

As Provost Vincent Price noted during his Convocation remarks at the Palestra in September, “on 33rd Street, stands a young Benjamin Franklin (at far right), our patron, depicted as he arrived in Philadelphia at age 17... like you, striking out on his own. That 1914 statue, a gift of the Class of 1904 by noted sculptor Robert Tait McKenzie, who headed Penn’s department of physical education, was actually the campus’s first memorial to Franklin as founder. As you’ve noticed by now, today he’s pretty much everywhere.”

In addition to the more recent and popular lifesize bronze, Ben on the Bench, (left) at 37th and Locust, made in 1987 by George Lundeen and given to Penn from the Class of 1962—and the miniature version sold at the Penn Bookstore as a special momento; there is the 1899 bronze sculpture by John J. Boyle, in front of College Hall, on loan from City Hall, which is said to bring good luck to those who rub Franklin’s foot.

Several busts of Ben are currently on view at the Arthur Ross Gallery’s Double Take exhibition through January 15, including the three below: (from left) a bronze by Jean-Antoine Houdon; a terra cotta by an unknown artist, and a marble bust carved after an origianl 1777 bust by Jean-Jacques Caffiéri, which was Franklin’s preferred likeness of himself.

Franklin’s birthday has been celebrated on January 17 for centuries but he was actually born on January 6, 1705, before the colonies switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. He supported the change and dutifully moved his birthday up the 11 days. Under the Julian system the new year began March 25 not January 1 so anyone born during those months also had to change the year of their birth. So his Gregorian year of birth became 1706 instead of 1705.

An Apotheosis of Franklin, (below) 1926, oil on canvas by N.C. Wyeth, is by far the largest piece of art on campus depicting the University’s founder. Apotheosis means the process of deification. This huge painting 16’ x 30’, depicts Franklin as patriot and statesman.It was made for the Franklin Savings Bank of New York and was subsequently given to the Independence Hall Association which gave it to Penn for the University’s 250th anniversary. It has been hanging in the Hill College House atrium where it can be seen from several floors. 


Staffordshire Coffee Pot (at left) Layafette at Franklin’s Tomb by Enoch Wood & Sons, Staffordshire, 19th century; the image of Franklin’s tomb is completely fictitious. In this image, his tomb is a grandiose monument in a park-like setting but his actual tomb is a simple slab in the graveyard at Christ Church in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin Mantel Clock (right) is a French Empire style clock with a marble base and gilded bronze statuette of Franklin. He is seated, overlooking an unfurled plan of the city of Philadelphia and holds a pair of eyeglasses in one hand while gesturing towards the map with the other. His costume includes a ruffled shirt and coat with fur collar—similar to the costume depicted in Jean Duplessis’s famous portrait of Franklin, and the bust of Franklin by Marietta in Penn’s Collection. Leaning against the table is a book, Electricity Conductors. The clock, 19” x 13 1/4” x 6”, likely dates to the early 19th century.

Young Franklin as Printer, (below) by Joe Brown and Vincent Masylin, a 1980 bronze, on loan from the Order of Masons, Philadelphia Chapter, resides at the Inn at Penn, adjacent to the entrance to the Living Room, near the top of the Walnut Street staircase.

Almanac - January 10, 2012, Volume 58, No. 17