In 1779 at the height of his fame in France, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his daughter Sarah Bache about the many different images of him then in circulation, “some to be set in lids of snuff boxes, and some so small as to be worn in rings; and the numbers sold are incredible. These, with the pictures, busts, and prints, (of which copies upon copies are spread every where) have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.” Of all these images, the one he liked best is this one, set in the lid of a tortoiseshell snuff box.
This is not a mass-produced image, however; it is a watercolor on ivory about 2½ inches in diameter, made for Franklin in 1779, at around the same time he wrote the letter to his daughter quoted above. It was painted by an artist named Dumont, who based it on a life-size pastel study made in 1778 by Joseph Siffrède Duplessis, now owned by the New York Public Library. The pastel was taken from life to save Franklin from long tedious sittings as Duplessis worked on his masterpiece, the great “fur coat” portrait now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This little snuff-box portrait, then, is first cousin to the most famous of all the painted images of Franklin.
Franklin’s receipt for the snuff box (he paid the hefty sum of eight Louis d’Or for it) indicates that it was made for “Miss Shipley in England.” Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, was one of Franklin’s closest English friends, and Georgiana was his favorite among of the five Shipley daughters. Franklin often sought refuge in the bishop’s house, where he could get a taste of the family life he missed so much. Georgiana kept up a lively correspondence when he was in France, and she extracted the gift of the snuff box in a typically flattering letter written from London on May 1, 1779. “Numberless are the prints & medals we have seen of you, but none that I quite approve, should you have a good picture painted at Paris, a miniature copied from it, would make me the happiest of beings, & next to that, a lock of your own dear grey hair would give me the greatest pleasure.”
When the snuff box was delivered to her in London, she wrote a thank you letter that was even more enthusiastic. “How shall I sufficiently express my raptures on receiving your dear delightfull letter & most valuable present. The pleasure I felt was encreased if possible at the sight of the beloved little lock of Hair. I kissed both that & the picture a 1000 times. [A]s for the resemblance, it is my very own dear Doctor Franklin himself, I can almost fancy you are present, nay I even think I see you smile at the excess of my happiness.” A mutual friend in London named Digges admired her miniature and wrote Franklin to solicit a new full-length portrait for himself. Franklin somewhat testily (and vainly) suggested that Digges hire an English artist to paint “the body of a lusty man which need not be drawn from the Life,” and to copy onto it “the face Miss Georgiana has, [which] is thought here to be the most perfect.”
In 1784 Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin (then in London) borrowed the snuff box from Georgiana for Benjamin West to use this miniature as a model for Franklin in his magnificent group picture of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. West evidently returned it to her, because it remained in her family until 1959, when it was sold at Sotheby’s. Eventually it passed to the great Frankliniana collector Stuart Karu, who gave it to the Library Company in 2009. Needless to say we are inordinately pleased to have this “most perfect” of the myriad likenesses of our founder, among the highlights of our Frankliniana.