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Portrait, Historical, American, Benjamin Franklin, Antique Mezzotint Print, London, 1761


Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788) (after)
James McArdell (c.1729-1765) (engraver)
Franklin of Philadelphia, 1761, L.L.D., F.R.S.
London: 1761
13.75 x 9.75 inches, image size including title
17.25 x 11.5 inches, overall with laid paper border

A half-length portrait of Benjamin Franklin standing beside a chair and desk, as if in front of a window with a curtain pulled back to reveal a stormy sky. He is shown dressed in a powdered wig and unbuttoned waistcoat looking directly at the viewer. The portrait includes various visual references to his famous experiments with lightning and electricity; he is holding a book titled “Electric Expts” in his right hand and pointing with his left hand at lightning striking buildings on a distant horizon. On the desk in the foreground are paper, pens and a glass scientific instrument for generating static electricity.

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The artist, Benjamin Wilson, painted this portrait of Franklin from life shortly after his arrival in London as a foreign diplomat representing the Pennsylvania Assembly. Wilson was also a noted chemical and electrical experimenter and a Fellow of the Royal Society, the leading scientific organization in London. According to historian Gordon S. Wood, Franklin was of particular interest to Wilson; Franklin had been honored for his scientific accomplishments by prestigious British universities between 1758 and 1762: feted at Cambridge University, and presented with honorary doctorates from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Oxford University in England. Wood notes that  Wilson capitalized on Franklin’s popularity by creating this portrait and having mezzotint artist James McArdell reproduce it for this engraving:

[Franklin’s] fame was extraordinary; it was not simply that he was a world-celebrated scientist but that he was a colonial from the far wilderness across the Atlantic. So celebrated was he that enterprising individuals could make money from his image: one of his portraitists, Benjamin Wilson, had engraver James McArdell make mezzotints for sale to the general public.

Wilson’s original portrait of Franklin, painted in 1759, is in the White House art collection. The U.S. Department of State also has an oil painting that they label as “attributed” to Benjamin Wilson, which shows Franklin in the same pose “to serve as a model for the mezzotint by James McArdell” (see References). It is related to Wilson’s earlier painting of Franklin, but extends the figure, and adds some background details. McArdell further embellished the portrait with imagery of Franklin’s experiments with electricity and other details in his mezzotint print.

Benjamin Wilson was an English painter, etcher and scientist, son of a wealthy clothier in York. After his father’s business failed, Wilson moved to London, where he became a clerk and began to study painting. In the late 1740s he lived in Dublin, where he had a successful career as a portrait painter. He returned to London and built up a lucrative portrait practice, which was probably patronized chiefly by Yorkshiremen in London. In 1773, Edward Augustus, Duke of York (1739-67), appointed Wilson painter to the Board of Ordnance. Wilson was a Fellow of the Royal Society.

James McArdell was a prolific and esteemed engraver, born in Dublin, who moved to London in 1746 with his master, the engraver John Brooks. By 1750, he had established himself as a mezzotint engraver, where he became the center of a circle of other Dublin engravers who had followed him there, including Richard Houston, Charles Spooner and Richard Purcell. McArdell produced some 200 mezzotints after other artists, mainly portraits. These include prints after Anthony van Dyck, Peter Lely, Joshua Reynolds, Allan Ramsay, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, William Hogarth, Benjamin Wilson and others.

Condition: Generally very good recently professionally cleaned and deacidified, with only light remaining toning and wear. Short tear in upper margin, extending slightly into black background sky and not otherwise affecting image, and a few minor abrasions in black background near that, all professionally restored and unobtrusive. Cut to margins on top and sides probably as originally framed, now professionally set in a window mat of 18th century laid paper to extend margins.


“B. Franklin of Philadelphia.” Library of Congress. (9 September 2019).

“Benjamin Wilson.” The Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Macmillan. 2000. Online at (7 May 2002).

Chapin, Joyce E. The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. New York: Basic Books, p. 166. Online at Google Books: (9 September 2019).

“History of the Ordnance Survey.” (7 May 2002).

“James McArdell.” The Grove Dictionary of Art. New York: Macmillan. 2000. Online at (2 June 2005).

“Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (Wilson-State), ca. 1760.” Franklin & Marshall College Frankliniana Database. 2008. (9 September 2019).

Russell, Charles E. English Mezzotint Portraits and Their States: Catalogue of Corrections of and Additions to Chaloner Smith’s ‘British Mezzotinto Portraits.’ Vol 2. London: Halton & Truscott Smith, Ltd. New York: Minto, Balch & Co., 1926. 73.

“White House Paintings: ‘Benjamin Franklin,’ by Benjamin Wilson (1759).” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. (9 September 2019).

Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2005. p. 87. Online at Google Books: (9 September 2019).

Additional information


18th Century