This post is contributed by Rose Durand, Buchanan/Burnham Fellow
A beautiful print has been discovered while cataloging a collection of framed paintings and prints at the Newport Historical Society. L’apôtre de la Liberté Immortalisé, or The Apostle of Liberty Immortalized, by artist Baricou Montbrun, features Benjamin Franklin being carried into Heaven by an angel. Time, having abandoned his scythe and hourglass, tugs on Franklin’s leg in an effort to keep him on Earth. Serpents peek out at the scene from the entrance to Hell on the left. America, dressed as a Native American woman, mourns the loss of Franklin. To the right, we see a Roman soldier in mourning. An obelisk with a lightning rod at the top reads “FRANKLIN NE PEUT MOURIR”, or “FRANKLIN CANNOT DIE”.
A French subtitle in translation reads, “Allegory dedicated to the Friends of the French Constitution by the author, and is hereby presented to the National Assembly.” The French National Assembly was born in the French Revolution’s infancy, in June 1789, and lasted until September 1791, when it became the Legislative Assembly. The “Friends of the French Constitution” are likely the Jacobin Club, the most infamous of the Revolution’s political clubs. They referred to themselves as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution in their formative years.
France and the United States have had a complex relationship, which turned sour when the United States declared neutrality in the French Revolutionary conflict between Britain and France in May 1793. Before this time, the French greatly admired the Americans for their successful revolution, wanting to emanate this success. Franklin, having been the first American ambassador to France, died in April 1790.
It is unknown how many copies of this print remain, although it was mentioned in a 1910 catalogue of rare Americana. It was likely printed in Bordeaux, but very little has been found so far regarding the artist. Hopefully further research can reveal more about its rarity and how this print came to the Newport Historical Society.