This is the “Fur Collar” portrait of Benjamin Franklin that was commissioned by his friend and landlord, Leray de Chaumont. It appears in its original frame, surmounted by a wreath of oak and bay leaves, below which is a rattlesnake lying on a branch of laurel to the left and an olive branch to the right. At the bottom is a liberty cap, a lion skin, the club of Hercules, and a scroll on which is inscribed the single word VIR, which in Latin means a “man of character.” It is the best executed and most famous French painting of Benjamin Franklin, portraying him as he appeared during John Adams' first mission to France, when the two men lived together at Passy (Charles Coleman Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture,
New Haven, 1962, p. 247–249). The letters and Adams' Diary entries for the period from his arrival in France in April 1778 to his departure in June 1779 indicate that the two men lived harmoniously, collaborating closely on the Commissioners' business. Although sometimes critical of Franklin's conduct of business, Adams recorded anecdotes and occasionally made
observations about Franklin at his own expense. Writing to Mercy Otis Warren on 18 December 1778, Adams observed that “the Ladies of this Country Madam have an unaccountable passion for old Age, whereas our Country women you know Madam have rather a Complaisance for youth if I remember right. This is rather unlucky for me for I have nothing to do but wish that I was seventy years old [Franklin was seventy-two in 1778]
and when I get back I shall be obliged to wish myself back again to 25.” The view of Franklin presented in these letters and Diary entries is in sharp contrast to the much darker, and far better known portrayal in John Adams' Autobiography, which was strongly shaped by events during Adams' second diplomatic mission, particularly those surrounding the peace negotiations in 1782 and 1783.
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. The Friedsam Collection.