Current has taken a look at the stories behind some of Penn’s most well-known, and most obscure, pieces of public art. The tour concludes with the statue, “Benjamin Franklin.” To view a slideshow of a year of Campus Art Walk, visit the Current on the web at: www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current.
Benjamin Franklin’s image is ubiquitous around campus. His work is celebrated in ways both literal and figurative, big and small—but perhaps no way is quite as visible as the bronze sculpture that sits at the heart of campus on College Green.
Sculpted by notable artist John J. Boyle, “Benjamin Franklin” captures the Philadelphia statesman, University founder and prolific inventor in an alert (but seated) pose. According to the website “The Electric Franklin,” some people remarked at the time of the statue’s unveiling that the figure of Franklin was so rotund that it appeared as though he might pop a button on his waistcoat. This unconfirmed rumor supposedly inspired sculptor Claes Oldenburg and artist Coosje van Bruggen to create their piece, “Split Button,” just across the Green.
Boyle descended from Irish stonecutters and was a native of New York City. He received professional training at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute and Academy of Fine Arts (studying with painter Thomas Eakins), as well as the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
Boyle received his first major commission in 1880 from a Chicago patron. The resulting sculpture, “An Indian Family,” caught the attention of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Art Association, which then commissioned him to create “Stone Age in America” for the park. His Franklin statue dates to 1899.
This is one of three Franklin statues on campus; the other two can be found in front of Weightman Hall, on 33rd Street, and at 37th Street and Locust Walk.
Originally published on June 11, 2009